While never boring, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” can feel like a three-hour documentary at times. Its subjects speak in articulated but needlessly long sentences, and it carelessly meanders on certain topics and events of the prolific author’s life without direction. Like endless waves crashing into the sands near her former California home, the movie is calming and poetic, with its easygoingness increasingly hard to endure.
All the beats, arcs and angles of Didion’s life are covered in full. Her early vagabond days at Vogue magazine and in New York, the blithe but burdensome marriage with her husband John, and the interesting anecdotes about the various social acquaintances she gathered along the way. There’s so much that’s covered that its hard to pick out a specific memory or moment that stands out in the documentary, where you leave feeling you know Didion from somewhere, but just can’t place exactly where the two of you met.
The love of the film clearly shows, as it is helmed by Griffin Dunne, filmmaker, producer and Didion’s nephew. That grants Dunne a level of intimacy and familiarity that other documentarians probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve with the author. Simultaneously, it limits his ability to tell a fully authentic and raw portrayal of a subject like Didion, where it ends up feeling like the film that Didion would have wanted, not necessarily the one that the audience deserved.
Perhaps the only person who could make a truly great Joan Didion documentary is Joan Didion herself. As we learn in this version of a Didion doc, the author has never shied away from telling her own tale with fervent detail and an authoritative but authentic voice. But it’s questionable if the author would ever feel the need to create her own doc, seeing how so much of her life has already been bared on a page.
It’s decent for what it is, an intimate dissection and portrayal of an intimate subject. Sadly, even when all those pieces are taken apart of Didion’s life and placed back together, it never feels quite whole again.