With its controversial subject matter, Peter Richardson's "How to Die in Oregon" is likely to have its detractors sight unseen. That's unfortunate because this documentary does a fine job of illustrating personal stories in an effective and affecting way as opposed to being an overt political diatribe. While the film's sensibilities and sentiments are certainly not concealed, there is much to recommend this presentation even if you do not agree with Oregon's Death with Dignity Act. It places a number of people who have participated in (or wanted to) the program center stage to share their tales and these heartfelt confessions will elicit your empathy and understanding. That, in itself, is the primary selling point of "How to Die in Oregon." Despite your views, these stories are relatable, courageous, and thought-provoking. Both harrowing and heartfelt, the movie also manages to celebrate life. These are NOT people who want to die, they want to live. It is an extremely important topic handled in a very sensitive manner.
The film displays an even hand in tackling a complicated issue. The Death With Dignity Act is a progressive policy that permits doctors to prescribe a treatment that allows a patient the means to end their own life should their medical status become unbearable. It is not considered assisted suicide (which put Jack Kevorkian in jail) as the subjects must be able to physically accomplish the deed without someone administering it to them. The film introduces advocates, volunteers, and patients of varying positions and viewpoints. Some opt to go through with Death With Dignity, some do not, some become incapacitated and are unable to do so. Richardson has intimate access to these subjects but the film always seems respectful of what it is showing us.
For those that would argue the film is totally one-sided, it does indeed presents some alternate views. One of the most memorable sequences comes from a gentleman who is denied insurance coverage for treatment but offered assistance for Death With Dignity. It's a powerful moment that highlights the potential pitfalls of the proposed system. Ultimately, though, the film makes a strong case for giving someone control and choice at a moment when they are at their most vulnerable. "How to Die in Oregon" is surprisingly understated and, in its quiet power, it becomes a film that you're not likely to forget. Strong, but important, stuff. An easy recommendation to anyone on either side of the debate. KGHarris, 1/12.