Abbot Genser/HBO
April 14, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
We gave it a B

You Don’t Know Jack is a deadly-bad title for a lively-good TV movie about the assisted suicide? well, pioneer seems too jaunty a word, doesn’t it? Director Barry Levinson (Diner) approaches Jack Kevorkian’s championing of physician-assisted death as a little-guy-against-the-Establishment drama. The movie shows how Kevorkian’s desire to provide a humane alternative for the terminally ill became a cultural flash point and a media circus.

Al Pacino plays Kevorkian with admirable restraint — a broad Michigan accent is about as showboaty as he gets. Brenda Vaccaro (so infrequently used on screen anymore) proves how brightly she still glows as Kevorkian’s devoted sister Margo, while Susan Sarandon and John Goodman give artfully modest performances as friends of Kevorkian.

You have to admire the way Levinson and company aren’t bothering to reach out to HBO’s True Blood demo, unless you count viewers who’ll tune in to see anybody dead. The movie begins with Kevorkian at age 61 — which was when he began his crusade — and ends with him at 79, just out of jail on a second-degree murder rap cooked up by prosecutors depicted as embarrassed that they’d previously failed to make ‘Dr. Death’ a public pariah.

There’s nothing visually interesting going on in Jack; Levinson shoots everything straightforwardly, approximating a documentary style in many scenes. He craftily edits in real footage of Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace interviewing Pacino-Kevorkian, but that’s as fancy as the director gets. The result is a pro-euthanasia argument told as a lovable-old-coot story. It’s probably the best way to sell such a grim tale. B

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