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Joan Didion con­ceals her life as she reveals it. Trad­lands | Flickr

In the last scene of her film memoir, the camera centers on Joan Didion’s hands: gnarled, veined, gripping the hands of her friend as she once held the pen that made her one of the master craftsmen of fiction and non­fiction since the 1960s. 

In “The Center Will Not Hold,” Didion holds the reins. The Netflix doc­u­mentary, filmed by Didion’s nephew Griffin Dunne, released Friday, takes its title from a poem by W.B. Yeats — but almost nothing else from outside Joan Didion’s influence.

What emerges is a Didion essay writ large. The mas­terful jour­nalist and nov­elist is its center, its shaping force, playing both the por­trait and the por­trait artist, wielding the pen and the interview couch to strike us with the story as she sees it. In “The Center Will Not Hold,” the 82-year-old, 5-foot-nothing writer looms large and enig­matic as ever, con­cealing her life even as she reveals it.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century and one of its most fearless writers, Didion has elec­trified the jour­nal­istic scene from the beginning with her impec­cable eye for telling detail and with her will­ingness to enter into her work, yet playing the part of the cool observer. In her first essay col­lection, “Slouching Towards Beth­lehem,” Didion ana­lyzed a late ’60s coun­ter­culture that she believed was more than hippies doing drugs; it was an entire gen­er­ation of dis­af­fected children. The climax of the titular essay occurs in a closing interview with a young girl who tells Didion she goes to “High Kinder­garten”: Her mother has been giving her acid since she was four years old.

In the doc­u­mentary, Didion claims that this interview was “gold,” from a journalist’s point of view. This was Didion’s kind of story, bleak and telling, a bomb to drop at the end of a piece, a picture of her native California’s center slipping.

The doc­u­mentary follows Didion’s life and work by inter­weaving readings from Didion’s work in her own voice and those of others, anec­dotes from friends (gen­erally related in Didion’s presence; her reac­tions steal the spot­light), and a lengthy per­sonal interview. It focuses less on Didion’s novels and jour­nalism than on her mar­riage with John Dunne, a fellow writer with a strong per­son­ality, editing advice, and mutual belief that nothing in their private life was off limits in their writing (Dunne edited a Didion essay that baldly con­fessed the two were in Hon­olulu “in lieu of filing for divorce”).

Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana said that as a mother, Didion was alright, but rather aloof. This stuns Didion, who con­siders her daughter the center of much of her life (and cer­tainly her writing, in her middle period and later in the bleak and beau­tiful “Blue Nights”). But both posi­tions make sense: Didion’s small family was the core of the writer’s life and the subject of it.

Didion’s rela­tionship with John and Quintana come as close to human­izing Didion in what Netflix calls an “intimate doc­u­mentary.” The doc­u­mentary builds up to the central event of Didion’s life: the losses of husband and daughter in quick suc­cession in 2003 and 2005. In the aftermath of Dunne’s death, Didion wrote her most well-known work, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a memoir that con­fronts the star­tling reality of death outside the com­forts of reli­gious belief. In 2011, Didion did the same with “Blue Nights,” about Quintana. For Didion, the initial loss is not the worst one; it is the fading of their memory, like the sky dimming behind city lights at dusk. 

This picture of Dunne’s and Quintana’s dusk elicits empathy and admi­ration for the poetry in her prose. But there is a para­doxical power in writing through one’s grief.

On the one hand, she presents a fearless account of staring into the abyss of grief. As she has always done, she writes to under­stand. Here, she writes to cope.

On the other hand, she dis­tances herself through her writing, as she has always done. In pre­senting her writing through per­sonal pain in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” “Blue Nights,” and now in “The Center Will Not Hold,” Didion crafts an image of herself that is not so empa­thetic as chivalric. In taking on the drug epi­demics of the ’70s, civil wars in Guatemala, and her own grief, Didion is America’s most diminutive knight of letters, our small but mighty wielder of the pen. We love her for it, and rightly.

This dis­tancing is the age-old problem of lit­er­ature. We learn about our own lives from our writers, but we also envy them as they express (and thus seem to under­stand) the human expe­rience better than we can. Art becomes artifact, and Didion’s life has always been more than a life: it is a drama with herself as the main char­acter, a Stoic heroine who leaves no stone unturned in her search for a story.

Didion does not deny the effects of her attempts to fab­ricate control through writing; she admits that after the loss of the small family that defined much of her writing career, her center nearly did not hold. Her col­lab­o­rators on the play version of “The Year of Magical Thinking” set up a “Café Didion” to force her to eat after she dwindled to an alarming 75 pounds. The woman who stared open-eyed into the grave nearly wrote herself into it.

The doc­u­mentary ends with Didion’s 2013 reception of the National Medal of Arts and the National Human­ities Medal, which plays like Barack Obama’s knighting of an American hero. And of course, she is that. But the Didion of the ’70s drug epi­demics and the Guatemalan civil wars — and of her own bleak books on grief — would not see this as the full story.

I wonder what Didion is writing now. I wonder what the famously aloof political essayist would think of the regard of Pres­ident Obama. Probably she would shrug off her acco­lades in true Didion fashion. Pos­sibly she would use her fame as the vehicle for an impec­cably crafted analysis of an admin­is­tration that could hold its status as cul­tural author­ities more lightly.

I chalk the hagiog­raphy up to Griffin Dunne, but the core of the story is pure Didion. “The Center Will Not Hold” is much of what we wanted to hear from Didion, and nothing that she did not want us to see. And as a self-por­trait of Didion, “The Center Will Not Hold” is true to its subject: clear-eyed to a fault, heroic to the end.