The fascinating legal issue at play in You Don’t Know Jack comes down to the splitting of hairs. The courts, as they are shown by the film, deal with Dr. Jack Kevorkian based on reactionary whims. One prosecutor is dogged in his pursuit, driven by religious conviction that God is the sole arbiter of life and death. His successor doesn’t want to spend any more taxpayer money on a failed case and allows Kevorkian to go about his business. But then Kevorkian crosses the line.
How does he cross the line? Instead of placing a rudimentary clip on lethal substances to be released by the patient with a string, he administers the substances himself. The other details are the same: a suffering patient who documents his wish to die is helped by Kevorkian to do so. Just a difference of string. “He’s gone too far!” bellows the new prosecutor upon seeing Kevorkian’s latest mercy killing on 60 Minutes. He seems to consider it more a personal slap in the face than a breach of the law. How dare he do publicly what he had already been allowed to do privately! Says the judge, upon giving him the maximum sentence, Kevorkian has flouted the laws of the state. The family of the deceased is no longer allowed to testify about the mitigating circumstances because it’s not an assisted suicide anymore. It’s murder, and the context of the crime — that is, its whole meaning, motivation, and purpose — is no longer relevant.
Just a little bit of string.
I think the string is just a convenient abstraction, an excuse not to deal with the unpleasant issues Kevorkian desperately wants us to deal with. His real crime was taking away our illusions.
You Don’t Know Jack is an excellent character study and a provocative moral quandary. Kevorkian (Al Pacino) stands on a soap box to advocate his position, but the film doesn’t. Its focus is intimate. Directed by Barry Levinson, it tackles the political through the personal, taking each life as complete and important, and not a statistic for debate. Whether we accept or condemn Kevorkian’s behavior, it’s important to see it for what it is. The administering of death is a frightful procedure to watch. The declaration of intent is heartbreaking. We don’t want to think about it. We need to. After the deaths, Levinson shows us the bodies with their name and number — the number referencing the number of patients Kevorkian has treated.
The opposition frames the debate in false terms. A protester in a wheelchair holds a sign saying, “Please don’t kill me,” but of course Kevorkian doesn’t assist anyone who doesn’t want to die, and he turns away a good many who do. Only God can choose when a person lives or dies, say others, but no one objects when doctors interfere with God to save lives. In Kevorkian’s last trial, in 1999, the prosecutors drop the assisted suicide charge because it’s easier to convict for a murder without anguished family members testifying about the deceased’s quality of life. That’s the whole point of Kevorkian’s euthanasia, but it gets in the way of legal action.
Levinson cuts through the fervor on each side and approaches the subject in necessary shades of gray. He and screenwriter Adam Mazer clearly side with Kevorkian, and in doing so paint the campaign against euthanasia too dismissively to make this a truly balanced film — they’re all religious zealots and self-righteous moralists — but they wisely avoid turning Kevorkian into a heroic figure. He’s principled, but stubborn and arrogant, a martyr for the cause so fixated on the nobility of his martyrdom that he often does his cause a disservice. Pacino plays him with an outsize personality but a very internal emotional life. He’s not a very nice guy. His bedside manner could use work. But he doesn’t want to be liked. He’s content to be right. That’s his downfall: when it comes to the law, being right isn’t always enough.