Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold premieres Oct. 27 on Netflix.
Joan Didion has set an impossible standard for any documentarian who would want to cover her life. She’s essentially already done it herself, brilliantly, in her essays, novels and films. Still, Didion’s nephew, actor/director Griffin Dunne, takes a shot with his new Netflix film Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold; Dunne hits us with one after another of Didion’s accomplishments and struggles, adding historical context lest we forget what a trailblazer she was and is. Seeing the breadth of Didion’s work and its impact on the culture represented cumulatively delivers an unexpected shock to the system. We begin to see the larger narrative unfold from her decades of work, that of the American Dream and its infinite incarnations and failures.
Dunne humbly keeps the focus on Didion herself, avoiding any self-conscious flash. He tells a linear story, stretching from how Didion got her start as a writer (submitting to a Vogue contest) to how she spends her days as an active octogenarian, using her books as the springboard for discussion. Specific passages are read aloud in voiceover, while vintage photographs and videos of Didion flash on the screen. As Dunne interviews her in the present time, Didion displays the same journalistic distance that’s been her hallmark, like she’s simply reporting on her own life.
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Didion herself notes that detached demeanor in a story she tells about her late daughter Quintana Dunne, who once confessed to Didion how lonely it felt being the great writer’s child. If you’ve read The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights, Didion’s memoirs on grief and loss, you won’t be surprised by the tragic deaths of Quintana and Didion’s husband John, but you will feel the weight of them again in this documentary. Still, what’s possibly the most resonant story is that of Didion’s relationship with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. Even when both were writing essays on the difficulties of their marriage, they still edited each other’s work. A partnership of such mutual respect and openness seems all too rare. Director Dunne seems to continue in this family tradition with The Center Will Not Hold — he respects Didion enough to let her decide how much she wants to reveal, and Didion trusts Dunne to get it right on the screen.