“Dick Johnson is Dead” could be the first documentary nominated for best picture

A review of the film “Dick Johnson is Dead” and whether or not it deserves to be nominated for best picture.

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Netflix

WSS staffer Jack Harris ’22 reviews “Dick Johnson is Dead.”

2020 hasn’t been ALL bad. There were some really good documentaries last year. Now I know that might seem like I’m bending over backward to find a silver lining from 2020, but I mean it when I say there were a lot of good documentaries this year. There have been over 200 submissions for best documentary at this year’s Oscars, shattering the previous record of 170. This year could also see the first time a documentary is nominated for best picture, and as of right now it seems like the film with the best chance of doing that is the new Netflix documentary “Dick Johnson is Dead”.

We see [Dick] slowly start to forget more and more as his dementia takes hold”

— Jack Harris '22

Contrary to the film’s title, Dick Johnson is not actually dead. The documentary is written and directed by Kristen Johnson, and follows her father, Dick, in the twilight of his life. As the premise suggests, the film is a very personal and lovingly honest portrait of Dick Johnson. Despite the personal lens of the film, it captures a very universal set of emotions, after all, we all get old and watch other people get old. This is the aspect where it shines the most, although the existential nature of the film might not be for everyone.

As Dick is a man nearing his 90s, a common theme throughout the documentary is his memory loss. We see him slowly start to forget more and more as his dementia takes hold. For those who have seen friends and family go through similar experiences, this part can hit especially hard. Seeing family try all sorts of methods to slow his deterioration, such as mind games, reading, and interacting with others, only for those methods to fail, feels like a punch to the gut. This documentary does a perfect job of capturing what it feels like to see someone you love slowly slip closer and closer to the end of their life.

The flow of the movie is anything but linear. In some ways, it’s a documentary about making a documentary. Throughout the film, it constantly cuts between the documentary and behind the scenes, so as to get the most authentic experience possible. Most of the scripted scenes of the documentary are Dick’s various fantasies being played out in real life, such as reuniting with his wife in heaven. While this causes the movie to feel disjointed at many times, it does improve the film and helps the audience connect more with the people onscreen.

It’s a documentary about making a documentary”

— Jack Harris '22

The film’s weakest aspect is the limited focus. In spending so much time focusing on Dick that Kristen fails to fully capture her and Dick’s relationship. We get to see Dick talk about his wife, meet some of his old friends, and play with his grandkids, but all we ever really see of Dick and Kristen together is small moments in between scenes. This leaves a significant emotional gap in the movie that could have easily been avoided if the movie was just 10-15 minutes longer.

As of the writing of this article Dick Johnson isn’t dead yet. Even as he turns 90 next year he continues to enjoy life with his family in New York. This documentary has its share of flaws, but still manages to give the viewer something profound and more than deserves to be nominated for best picture. There’s one scene in particular that highlights this point. During one scene later in the film, Kristen shows the one tape she took of her mother while she was still alive. It’s one of the most touchingly heartbreaking scenes one could ever witness. I won’t spoil the scene for you, but take my advice, if and when you do finish that scene and this documentary, go record your loved ones doing something random. Someday you’ll be happy that you did.