Paging Dr. Death

By James, Caryn | Newsweek, April 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

Paging Dr. Death


James, Caryn, Newsweek


Byline: Caryn James

If someone says, "I want to call Dr. Kevorkian," we grasp exactly what that means. You Don't Know Jack, HBO's film starring Al Pacino as the man who made physician-assisted suicide a still-hot national debate, reveals how Jack Kevorkian came to be such a cultural force. His campaign to legalize assisted death gained traction in the 1990s thanks largely to his publicity-hound lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston). And Kevorkian, who had hoped to get his case to the Supreme Court, managed something bigger: he appeared on 60 Minutes. This sophisticated film suggests that issues can become socially relevant not because their time has come but because they are dragged into the media spotlight.

The movie is often as entertaining as its jokey title, but always more thoughtful. When Kevorkian needs a lawyer, his sister suggests the only one they've heard of: some guy named Fieger she's seen in TV medical-malpractice commercials. That fame-craving lawyer was a perfect if accidental fit. On camera with local reporters, Fieger taunts a Michigan prosecutor into charging his client with a crime--"This is how you play the media, Jack," he says--and the news goes national. As a friend affectionately says after the story lands in NEWSWEEK, "You're not a local quack anymore, you're America's quack."

Displaying its own media savvy, Jack is sympathetic to Kevorkian but not polemical. It doesn't have to be, because it so effectively uses Kevorkian's actual tapes of patients. Having broken with Fieger after several acquittals, Kevorkian wants an-other test case and crosses a legal line. Rather than having a patient self-administer a suicidal dose of drugs, he gives the lethal injection to a man with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) who can barely speak or move, then shows his recording on CBS. Kevorkian's wrenching tape of Thomas Youk's request to die, and of the death itself, is carefully edited and deftly inserted into the movie to startling yet sympathetic effect. …

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