Baltimore-born director Barry Levinson has a winner in the new HBO film "You Don't Know Jack," a docu-drama about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the former pathologist who made headlines in the 1990s assisting terminally ill patients who wanted to commit suicide.
For Baltimore viewers one of the best things about this look at the man known as "Dr. Death" is that it has strong echoes of such Levinson feature films as "Diner" and "Tin Men." In fact, one of the film's best scenes is set in a diner, a Bob's Big Boy in Detroit, where Kevorkian lived and helped people die. And even though Levinson did not write the screenplay, his sensibility infuses every frame of the scene.
For example, as Kevorkian and his sister engage in an intense and emotional argument, Levinson frames the two of them in the diner booth so that the viewer is always aware of the oversized statue of the the cartoon-like Big Boy himself right outside the window.
The juxtaposition of the Big Boy and these two passionate characters in heated debate not only reminds you of how foolish we can all be in what we think of as our most righteous moments, it is also a more cosmic reminder of the absurdity of life and death. I'm not trying to place Levinson in the Theater of the Absurd here, just trying to suggest that as much as Levinson can make you smile, he is doing it with serious commentary -- not cheap Hollywood yuk-shots.
Of course, it is easier to look great as a director when you have an inspired leading performance like the one Al Pacino delivers as Kevorkian. Pacino is beyond brilliant. Give him the Emmy now for best lead acting performance in a movie or mini-series. Everything you think you know about the over-the-top, roaring, sexually-charged, East-Coast-man performances by Pacino is recent years, forget it. That Pacino is gone, as he sheds all that on-screen persona to become Kevorkian -- and remind you that he is still one of our greatest actors.
In that diner scene, he plays opposite Branda Vaccaro, who has a key role as Kevorkian's sister, Margo. Their argument is a jazz performance -- two splendid soloists, playing off and against each other, pushing each higher, higher and never stepping on the other's notes. And, again, Levinson keeps pumping more and more energy, emotion and passion into the scene with the camera. If anyone thought Levinson was at or near the end of his career, they won't after seeing this. This is the work of a vital, engaged artist.
And then, comes Susan Sarandon and John Goodman -- and both of them deliver A-level performances.
Enough for today. Consider this a sneak preview of the film that debuts at 9 p.m. Saturday. I am putting it up now hoping it will lead some readers to check out Al Pacino who will be talking about the film tonight on "60 Minutes" at 7 p.m. on CBS.