Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold premieres Oct. 27 on Netflix
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 voice-over, 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.
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 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.