Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is a hollow and superficial biography of the writer, which is a shame, because Didion is an undeniably enthralling character.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is a hollow and superficial biography of the writer, which is a shame, because Didion is an undeniably enthralling character who has lived a life worthy of deeper analysis. The film’s central issue is its complete lack of narrative focus; it seems, in fact, allergic to positing a thesis about Didion, unless that thesis is something as bland as “She sure is great!” It was directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, but its composition is starkly purposeless and offered without any hint that the director knows Didion or has insider access; it feels anonymous and sterile.
The documentary begins promisingly. Didion herself is reading from one of her many essays over an image of archival film footage of the Golden Gate Bridge. Her quote crackles with intellectual audacity and social relevance and is written and spoken with an authoritative voice. Society is falling apart and the center will not hold, warns Didion reading Didion. The quote is dislocated from time and place; the film makes no effort to contextualize the lines or orient the viewer. Instead, the viewer must anticipate having this quote fleshed out. Such a narrative hook is of course a tired trope, but nevertheless it succeeds in building excitement and suspense. It hints that this will be a film about society, politics and the paradoxical ways in which everything is both unstably suspended over an abyss and yet somehow seems secure, just like the Golden Gate Bridge.
Except all of those assumptions and promises about the film are immediately abandoned and go unfulfilled. Not only does the film fail to explore the quote—which is also its subtitle—but it also never once returns to those lines. What ensues from that brilliant opening shot is the most boring biography of Didion one could imagine.
Dunne takes the viewer through each phase of Didion’s professional life. Starting with her tenure at Vogue in the ‘50s, the film proceeds in a rote and methodical fashion, giving approximately five-to-eight minutes of screen time to each thing Didion did in chronological order. From Vogue to marriage to freelancing in Los Angeles to adopting a child to political commentary to screenwriting to war-time correspondent in El Salvador to novelist to widowed playwright: a monotonous succession of incredible life achievements bloodlessly and pointlessly marched across the screen. It is a CV put into the medium of a film. But here is the thing about CVs: they are boring as hell to read! That is why we attach cover letters to them, to provide some kind of narrative basis around which a reader can organize the list of accomplishments.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold would benefit from a thesis and/or a focus. The subtitle suggests (even promises) that the film will be about Didion’s rightly famous political and cultural commentary following the aftermath of ‘60s bacchanalia and the emergence of the Silent Majority that elected Nixon. That would make a fine documentary; in fact, setting as one’s purpose an in-depth engagement with Didion’s work at any point in her storied career would be worthwhile. She is that talented and important as a writer. What surely does not work, as this film is ample evidence, is a vague and surface-deep summarization of that storied career from beginning to end.