Certainly you've pondered the question at least once or twice: If Hollywood ever decided to do a movie on your life, who would they pick to play the lead? In the case of You Don't Know Jack, the big-ticket HBO Films biography debuting at 9 p.m. Saturday on HBO, you've got to believe that not even one as arrogant, bombastic and notorious as Detroit's own Dr. Jack Kevorkian would expect to be portrayed by one the greatest American actors of our generation.
Yet there he is, of all people, Al Pacino -— Michael Corleone, Frank Serpico, Tony Montana and Frank Slade, all rolled into one — dying his hair silver and donning oversized specs and a baby blue cardigan to assume the role of our nation's most outspoken proponent of assisted suicide. When you first see Pacino, peering through a hospital glass into the room of a terminally ill patient, you may gasp at the transformation. I did. The voice needed work — he frequently makes Kevorkian sound like a cross between an Irish barkeeper and a Yooper fisherman — but his physical resemblance to Dr. Death is uncanny. "He looked more like me than I do," Kevorkian told HBO.
Which of course prompts the question: Why would Pacino want to play him in the first place? Does he not know Jack?
"I read the script (from Adam Mazer, who co-wrote the 2007 film Breach), and it was so interesting," Pacino said in an interview. "Very rarely do you find something that makes you say, 'I want to play this.' The character was elusive and different for me. I've never played anyone like this. I thought it was interesting to try to find a way to express what it is to be a true zealot. The way I believe Jack is. He's the real thing. And of course, it had Barry Levinson as the director, which is a big, big plus."
Fact is, the film, shot primarily in New York but including many familiar metro Detroit locations, exudes big, big pluses at every turn, beginning with the authenticity and nuance the legendary Levinson brings to practically all his work. Everywhere you look, a familiar, big name appears: a chunky Brenda Vaccaro as Kevorkian's supportive and emotional sister, Margo; a stoic Susan Sarandon as his unlikely ally Janet Good, head of Michigan's Hemlock Society; John Goodman, still Hollywood's first choice for beefy dramatic sidekick, as his trusted friend and medical-supply connection Neal Nicol; and Danny Huston (yes, of the Huston Hustons) as Detroit's favorite bellicose barrister, attorney Geoffrey Fieger.
Alternately riveting, maddening and heartbreaking, You Don't Know Jack begins with Kevorkian at 61, a discredited pathologist who launches his crusade to offer a dignified alternative end to the terminally ill, and ends with him in prison convicted of second-degree murder after brazenly injecting a patient with potassium chloride on a 60 Minutes episode. Unlike everybody else in the whole world, we do know Jack; unless the electricity was shut off in your cave during the '90s, we lived every day of his melodrama through sensational newspaper headlines and TV reports. Levinson and Mazer try to maintain a balanced view of the issue — the naysayers, protesters, exasperated Oakland County Prosecutor Richard Thompson (Cotter Smith), jowly John Engler are all represented — while fleshing out Kevorkian beyond the media bites as a painter, flutist, classical buff and intellectual.
Our intrinsic knowledge of the story may allow us to focus more sharply on the performances. While Pacino never completely inhabits his character — you never find yourself thinking, "That's not Al Pacino playing Jack Kevorkian" — he does inform the role, making Kevorkian more understandable if not sympathetic. (Levinson skillfully intercuts patient interviews and actual interview footage with Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace to lend additional texture.) If anything, the mop-topped Huston may have underplayed Geoffrey Fieger; he's loud but not over-the-top enough, lacking that smarter-than-you, sneering edge that permeates his voice and personality. (To no one's surprise, Fieger admits he slammed down his phone on Mazer numerous times before the screenwriter could convince him he was serious about creating a Kevorkian script; he and fellow metro Detroit attorney Mayer Morganroth are credited as consultants on the film.)
If you know Jack — Jack Lessenberry, that is, our esteemed Metro Times political columnist and pundit, who's depicted in the TV-movie as the journalist who propelled Kevorkian's story to national status — you may agree that actor James Urbaniak (the voice of Dr. Thaddeus Venture on The Venture Bros.) must have studied dozens of his Flashpoint appearances: you'll recognize his note-perfect portrayal the moment he appears on screen. You also may be impressed with Levinson's regard to local detail: Faygo glass bottles, Channel 4 and 7 news logos, the Monroe Street Café in Greektown, Channel 2's Kam Carman as a street reporter. Even the Metro Times cover gets some on-camera play, although with a headline and font we would never consider running.
You Don't Know Jack is a hackneyed, ill-defined title (what, Dr. Death was taken?) that doesn't do justice to this work. If it's possible to set aside one's emotionality over Kevorkian — love him or hate him — and the right-to-die issue and just watch the movie on its own merits, I think you'll find it a fascinating biopic, well told. After all, Al Pacino is as much a master of his craft as Jack Kevorkian claimed to be.
The schooling of 'America'
Teachers, get ready. America: The Story of Us, History's extraordinarily cool and surprisingly uncheesy 12-hour re-enactment of 400 years of American history from the Jamestown settlers to Barack Obama, is being offered to every school and college in America free of charge. The largest educational outreach program and the most ambitious original series in the history of History (formerly the History Channel), America, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday and continues for six consecutive nights, includes commentary by Americans from Colin Powell and Tom Brokaw to Donald Trump and P. Diddy. For information on obtaining the series, visit history.com/classroom.