A restrained Al Pacino gains sympathy for the title character, Dr. Kevorkian
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Directed By: Barry Levinson
Written by: Adam Mazer
Cast: Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, Danny Huston, Brenda Vaccaro, John Goodman
Screened at: Critics' DVD, NYC, 4/21/10
Opens: April 24, 2010 from 9p to 11.15p ET/PT on HBO. For several other times consult your HBO schedule.
Al Pacino was thirty-two years of age when he performed in the role of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's classic "The Godfather." Now at seventy, he plays-nay, he is-Jack Kevorkian, a retired doctor dedicated to performing what he calls a medical service, which is ending the pain and suffering of serious ill people who request his attentions. Michael Corleone got his way by techniques such as putting a bullet into a rival's brain. Yet one gets the impression from the hysteria surrounding the Kevorkian case that the American people were more upset about what Dr. Kevorkian was engaged in than what Corleone had done--had that fictitious person been real.
Organized crime makes for great cinema. By rights, euthanasia shouldn't have much of a chance to compete, but in Barry Levinson's two-part drama appearing April 24 and beyond on HBO, an almost unrecognizable Al Pacino delivers a stellar performance, never slipping on the Mid-West timbre of Kevorkian's speech (the action takes place wholly inside Michigan), pronouncing "no" like "noooo," keeping both body language and verbosity at a restrained pitch for most of the time while raising the roof in high drama in other situations.
If you think you know about Jack Kevorkian, how he performed acts of euthanasia and what became of him during a well-publicized trial, you don't really know Jack. You won't become bosom-buddies with the man after watching 144 minutes of Pacino and company, but you'll likely be caught-up enough with the man's character to come away with more insight that you'd had before.
A terrific ensemble cast lends credibility to the story: Danny Huston as the lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger; Brenda Vaccaro as the doc's fiery sister, Margo; John Goodman as Neal Nicol, a medical technician as Jack's best friend; and Susan Sarandon as Janet Good, an activist with the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society.
Kevorkian assisted in ending the suffering of 130 people, though assisted suicide was not permitted under Michigan law. Before the disturbing conclusion of the story when the doctor's luck runs out, he had convinced juries with videotaped pleas of several patients, most poignant those suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, a frightening, incurable illness that destroys the muscles beginning with the legs, paralyzing the arms, cutting off speech, and ultimately causing death by asphyxiation. Put on trial by an ambitious district attorney who has the support of some religious groups and conceivably millions of people nationwide, Kevorkian wins largely by showing videotapes made of the recently deceased, including weeping testimony by their loved ones who praise him for releasing the afflicted from incessant pain-pain described by one as "a toothache in every bone in your body."
He uses gas dispensed in a mask held across the sick people's faces but also, with unfortunate results in his final service, with a combination of drugs not unlike those used in prison to carry out death sentences. When sent to jail while under one indictment, he carries out a hunger strike for nineteen days, insisting that his lawyer not pay the bond because the doctor's aim is to challenge Michigan legislation against assisted suicide. (Regular moviegoers will be reminded of Michael Fassbender's role as I.R.A. hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's 2008 film "Hunger.")
Ultimately Barry Levinson, best known in the U.S. for his "Rain Man," gives us enough information to decide for ourselves whether Kevorkian should be known by a familiar title, Doctor Death, or as an angel of mercy, though he tilts the scales in Kevorkian's favor. In one scene, a picketer with a Christian group yells to Dr. Kevorkian, "Have you no religion?" The doc replies that his God is "Johann Sebastian Bach: at least he is not imaginary like yours." The drama abounds with such wit, flirting with mawkish intent about the poor souls who are suffering, and in at least one case a man who wants to be released so compellingly that he is unwilling to wait even one week for deliverance. Kevorkian did not deserve his ultimate fate.
Part 1 is 79 minutes. Part 2 is 65 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online