Joan Didion’s meticulously calibrated prose has the effect of placing her at a particular remove from the reader. The persona she creates on the page is always frank but never ingratiating.
So it’s disarming to see a relatively cozy Joan Didion in the documentary “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” but it should not be surprising. The movie is directed by Griffin Dunne, one of Ms. Didion’s nephews, who also appears as an onscreen interviewer. The Dunne-Didions are a storied family whose members are, and have been, significant cultural forces. They are also a clan rived by tragedy. Two of Ms. Didion’s most celebrated recent works concern the deaths of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter, Quintana Roo.
The exchanges between Mr. Dunne and Ms. Didion are at once fond and candid. When Mr. Dunne suggests that his uncle, Ms. Didion’s husband, was a “protector,” Ms. Didion nods animatedly before adding, “And a hothead.”
The relationship between Mr. Dunne and Ms. Didion limits the movie in certain ways, but opens it up in others. Mr. Dunne’s longtime family connections and his own prestige as a filmmaker no doubt helped him snag interviews that other documentarians would be hard-pressed to schedule. Ms. Didion’s friend Calvin Trillin is among the interviewees, and while I’d never dare suggest that great writer is not a big get, I was impressed in a different way when Harrison Ford showed up.
While the movie covers the whole of Ms. Didion’s life (and even the period before it, offering a fun fact that at one point the pioneer Didions traveled with the Donner party), those expecting a thorough examination of Ms. Didion’s work may be disappointed. Which is not to say that Mr. Dunne, a very canny filmmaker, doesn’t accomplish a lot via implication. The movie is subtly bracketed by readings of Ms. Didion’s appreciation of John Wayne, in an early essay, and her excoriation of Vice President Dick Cheney, in a later one. Unlike a great many more facile thinkers, Ms. Didion clearly does not consider them equivalent figures. But the citation of both works illuminates the changes in Ms. Didion’s thinking over the years.
Her early writing reveals the instincts of a conservative. As she witnessed the tectonic shifts in American life wrought by, among other things, the counterculture, she admittedly lost faith in “the social contract,” but did not turn left for solutions; rather, she staked a claim as a kind of ideological outsider. (Two words that are never uttered in this movie are “feminism” and “feminist.”) Mr. Dunne’s movie gets you thinking about all this with extremely well-chosen archival footage and evocative music choices.