Director Matthew Galkin’s documentary Kevorkian (aired on HBO on June 28th; also available on YouTube; ETA: as codeman38 points out below, the YouTube version is, unfortunately, not closed-captioned) is one of those documentaries that I felt nervous about watching, mostly because I was extremely skeptical that it would be anything other than a massive apologia for the man colloquially known as “Dr. Death” in the U.S. news media and among much of the North American public. I was also concerned that my own complicated views on physician-assisted suicide would impact my feelings on whether this documentary was worth the time and emotional energy spent watching it. Like many documentaries, it is a difficult film to watch. It is not uplifting by any means. Parts of it are brutal. Parts of it are frightening. That said, however, I am ultimately glad that I watched this film — not because it “humanizes” Jack Kevorkian or acts as an apologia, but because it deftly explores issues of ethics, law, the power of the media, and legacy.
The entire film is framed by Kevorkian’s ill-fated 2008 bid for a congressional seat representing the state of Michigan — his platform, as the film shows it, leans heavily on the Ninth Amendment — but his congressional hopes are not the most interesting or thought-provoking part of the film. Almost paradoxically, the most interesting part of this documentary is the fact that Kevorkian does a pretty excellent job of not coming across as particularly sympathetic, something that a viewer might not glean from the film’s trailer.
Here, Kevorkian comes off as one majorly self-aggrandizing guy, and it seems like the director does not have to work very hard to make viewers see that Kevorkian can be difficult to deal with. He often seems so enamored of his own ideas, and his own legacy, that he focuses on these things to the detriment of his friends and allies — and, ultimately, his cause. This becomes most clear in one sequence late in the film, where a longtime supporter of Kevorkian’s publicly disagrees with him at a small town hall-style meeting; Kevorkian responds not by answering the man’s questions regarding the Ninth Amendment, civilly discussing his differences of opinion or why he feels the way that he does, but by yelling at him and then forcefully spitting, “I wish you weren’t here [at this meeting]!” Kevorkian’s behavior during the Thomas Youk case is also ethically questionable, as he videotaped Youk’s death in part with the aim of bringing more publicity and media attention to himself and his cause, even though the videotape would most likely put him (Kevorkian) in prison for murder; as one journalist phrases it, Kevorkian wanted to start a “national debate on [physician-assisted suicide]” by appearing on 60 Minutes with the full tape of Youk’s death. The 60 Minutes footage, both of the Youk tape and Kevorkian’s interview with correspondent Mike Wallace, shown in the film is nothing short of chilling; when Kevorkian intones, “Either they go, or I do,” one may pause to consider that a potential “win” of this particular fight would be built on the bodies of those he has “assisted.”
Unfortunately, no one who opposes Kevorkian’s views on assisted suicide — or his political platform, for that matter (with the exception of the former supporter mentioned above) — gets any screen time whatsoever, and this ends up making the film as a whole seem extremely one-sided. As a viewer, I would have been interested in seeing people who oppose Kevorkian’s method and message, particularly since Kevorkian’s former lawyer simplifies the opposition to him, and physician-assisted suicide in general, by casting any opposition as right-wing religious reactionism versus “enlightenment,” thereby erasing the many disability activists who have criticized Kevorkian and his methods. And while Kevorkian certainly does an admirable job of not coming across as anything other than a guy who overestimates his own importance, or gives any consideration to the reasons why some might oppose his methods or message, the film’s lack of any substantial exploration of opposing view(s) was disappointing.
Despite its flaws, Kevorkian is an interesting, thought-provoking and disturbing documentary. As someone who has complex personal feelings about physician-assisted suicide and its ethics, I am of the opinion that this documentary provides a riveting look at the life of a man whose actions have, for better or worse, managed to galvanize the discussion of physician-assisted suicide, and related issues surrounding medical ethics, the media’s role in medical issues, life, death, and quality of life in the United States.
Commenting Note: This is NOT a thread in which to debate the “rightness” or “wrongness” of physician-assisted suicide in general. Please keep your comments to either the issues discussed here, those brought up by the Kevorkian case/media coverage/related topics, or those illuminated in the film. The entire film is available in 9 parts on YouTube [trigger warning for in-depth discussion of PAS, and accessibility warning for lack of closed-captioning].