Dick Johnson is dead. Well, sort of. Not really. The 86-year-old psychologist is still kicking but with a little less verve than usual. He’s scheduling different clients at the same time, asking the same questions only minutes apart and just the other day, he drove through a construction site on four flat tires. Like his late wife, he is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Dick’s daughter, Kirsten, is worried about him. She saw how the disease affected her mother; it was a “long goodbye,” as Dick himself put it. “Just the idea that I might ever lose this man,” Kirsten says, “is too much to bear.” So, she finds a creative way to cope — directing a documentary.
But “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is no ordinary doc. A celebrated cinematographer, Kirsten turns to the magic of the movies to contextualize the fear she is feeling. With Dick’s enthusiastic blessing, Kirsten hires a professional stunt crew and special effects team to imagine every way that Dick Johnson might die. In one scene, he’s hit by a loose AC unit. In another, he’s smacked by a big, wooden board. And in another still, he trips down the stairs. With fake blood pooling around his head, Kirsten directs: “Can you just, like, put one arm up against the wall? Yeah, that’s nice.”
“Dick Johnson Is Dead” is a kind of contradiction. It’s a morbid movie, but never morose; it’s charming, celebratory, yet heartbreaking and sad. Johnson — as in Kirsten — wades into tricky tonal waters, but it doesn’t take long for you to realize she knows how to swim. The film effortlessly dances between slapstick and sorrow, and the grace with which Johnson threads the needle only reaffirms her arrival as one of the most perceptive documentarians working today. “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is just as much about death as it is about the brilliant joys of life.
Before becoming a director in her own right, Johnson established herself as a leading cinematographer in the documentary sphere, photographing the films of Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11”), Kirby Dick (“Derrida”) and Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”). In 2016, she made her directorial debut with “Cameraperson,” a collage documentary that transformed her footage from decades of work across the continents into a personal memoir crossed with a manifesto on the art of documentary filmmaking. It opened to immense acclaim, just recently inducted into the Criterion Collection.
Kirsten’s creativity is on full display in “Dick Johnson Is Dead.” Instead of using intertitles or static, on-screen text, Johnson incorporates what clarifying context is needed into the actual environment of the film, including paperweights, airplane banners and the noodles in alphabet soup. And in addition to Dick’s elaborate executions, Johnson stages her own vision of heaven, complete with confetti and black-and-white cutouts of Dick’s many heroes and loved ones. These fictionalized elements enliven the film’s reserved, real-life moments, such as a sobering visit to the doctor’s office or a tender conversation between a daughter and her dad.
2020 — for reasons outside of its control — has been a garbage year at the movies. Can I even say that phrase anymore? Does “at the movies” even exist? It feels like forever since I last wrote a positive review, so for that reason alone “Dick Johnson Is Dead” was worth the watch. But even for those who don’t feel the need to transcribe their every waking thought, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is another exciting addition to Netflix’s documentary catalog, right alongside “Athlete A,” “Crip Camp” and “Disclosure.” It’s a life-affirming film about death, a coping mechanism turned celebration. More than anything, it’s an enduring cinematic monument to an ordinary man. Dick Johnson is dead? No, Dick Johnson is immortal. 9/10
This review was originally published on October 7, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.