“Terminally ill is an undefinable term”: You Don’t Know Jack

Holy crap.  I thought I knew what I was getting myself into watching this movie.  I was wrong.

Having been too young to understand what was going on when this was actually happening during the 1990s, I had no idea exactly what Jack Kevorkian did.  Of course, thanks to I Love the 90s, I did have a basic knowledge of the man.

You Don’t Know Jack tells the story of Jack Kevorkian, a pathologist who assisted about 130 people in committing their own suicides, from his point of view.  It follows him from the creation of his suicide machine, through his many trials, to his last patient.  He is pretty much the reason the phrase “physician-assisted suicide” was coined, and man, does it make for an interesting movie.

Not too long ago, the real Jack Kevorkian was on CNN being interviewed by Sanjay Gupta.  I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the screen, because this guy is just bizarre.  He comes across as totally put together and well-spoken, but in the same way Hannibal Lecter probably does.  Or maybe that was just my subconscious reminding me that all I knew of this man was that he helped kill people.  Either way, I was hooked on this interview.  Kevorkian (obviously) has very strong opinions, and it turns out, he has them on just about everything.  He came across as a pretty big prick, but I really wanted to hear what he said.  I highly recommend checking it out.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s article about his interview with Jack Kevorkian.

Anderson Cooper’s interview with Jack Kevorkian.

All of this is relevant, I swear.  I did actually watch a movie, and it was fantastic.  It doesn’t matter what you think about Kevorkian or what he did or physician-assisted suicides.  This is a really great movie and one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a long, long time.

You Don’t Know Jack begins with Kevorkian (played by Al Pacino) talking to his sister about how he wants to help people end their suffering, and then moves almost immediately to him showing a man who is unwillingly on life support how to use the contraption he built:  it allows the patient to tug on a string and administer their own drugs that will then put them to sleep before ending their life.  This movie wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter.

In his interview with a Newsweek writer, (which then becomes the article that slingshots him to national recognition)  Kevorkian sums up the completely baffling nature of this whole film.  The writer asks him how much he will charge a person to help them commit suicide.  Kevorkian responds with much dismay, “You don’t charge people for something like this.   What’s wrong with you?”

Unfortunately, the first person Kevorkian provides his service to commits suicide in the back of a van in a state park.  Kevorkian was going to do it in the home of Janet Good (played by Susan Sarandon), founder of a chapter of the Hemlock Society, but she changed her mind shortly before the procedure.

Throughout the film he interviews many people who would like his assistance, but he does reject many of them.  One such young man was clinically depressed, and they advised him to seek counseling.  Another was an older woman with Parkinson’s disease who could still perform daily functions.  While I don’t argue that what Kevorkian et al did was morally right, at least the film shows his process.  He had his own brightline for deciding whether he would or would not assist someone.

In what is probably the most memorable scene from the movie, Kevorkian and Neal Nicol (played by John Goodman) are administering aide to an older man with severe emphysema.  Kevorkian’s medical license has been revoked, so he no longer has access to the drugs he was using at first.  Now he uses carbon monoxide, but because he must ration his use, he places a plastic box over the man’s head and tapes a thin plastic sheet around his body to keep from losing any excess gas.  The man then turns on the CO, and seconds later is begging for it to stop.  He is overheated due to the plastic, but wants to proceed.  They start it over, this time using only the box over his head.  The scene is painful to watch.  Everyone in it–Kevorkian, Nicol, the man, and his wife–are absolutely pathetic, and it truly hurt my heart to see it.  Then again, I think that’s what Dr. Kevorkian is trying to explain to people who disagree with his practices.  Nothing about death is poised or dignified.  At least let everyone be in charge of their own death, if that’s what they want.

The film concludes with his prison sentence:  he served 8 1/2 years and was released in 2007 at 79 years old.

Al Pacino won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie, and Adam Mazer won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special, both of which I think were good calls.  If you want to watch a movie that makes you feel smarter for having done it, this is definitely one to watch.

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