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Abbot Genser/HBO

Still don't know him

Television | You Don't Know Jack tries too hard to be an Issue Movie

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

There's really no excusing You Don't Know Jack. Many non-Christians believe that human life is more sacred than personal dignity, of course. I certainly can't sit in judgment on people in chronic pain caused by incurable, fatal illnesses who commit suicide, because I have no idea what that kind of suffering feels like. But Barry Levinson's Jack Kevorkian biopic is simply hagiography.

The HBO movie's anti-euthanasia conservatives are two steps shy of Jim Jones Kool-Aid-drinking cultists, the Michigan authorities who prosecute Kevorkian's suicide assistance are either insufferable prudes or hypocrites, and Kevorkian himself (a magnetic Al Pacino, doing some of his finest work in years) is merely an eccentric little old man.

We should be prepared to see Kevorkian as human, but cute?

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The real Jack Kevorkian, over the course of killing more than 130 people, happened across many who were not fatally ill. Some, in fact, were almost certainly mentally ill and could have lived long and happy lives without the interference of someone whose idea of mercy was to provide people at the nadir of depression with an IV full of potassium chloride. And the patients weren't the only disturbed folks: Kevorkian himself is obsessed with death and the Armenian genocide on his ancestors.

We have every reason to feel pity for Kevorkian-all of us have sinned and are capable of the kinds of things that earned the hero of You Don't Know Jack the nickname "Dr. Death." But screenwriter Adam Mazer wants to make an Issue Movie so much that he barely even alludes to the complications of his hero's life, and the result is a generic fight-the-system movie that picks the wrong side of a very important argument. No one who is currently taking questions on the subject knows what it's like to die, and if man is made in God's image, anyone's suicide does profound, ungrateful violence to the very person of God.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the film comes near the end, when a batty Christian calls Kevorkian "Godless." "I have a God," Kevorkian snips, "and his name is Johann Sebastian Bach." Bach had a God, too, and His name was Jesus of Nazareth.

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