Dick Johnson is Dead

Oct 6, 2020

A talented filmmaker stars her dad in a doc about his death, while he's alive! Great loving stuff on Netflix.

Dick Johnson is Dead

Grade: A

Director: Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson)

Screenplay: Johnson, Nels Bangerter (Unseen)

Cast: Michael Hillow (First Cow), Dick Johnson (Bendeyar)

Runtime: 1h 29m

Rating: PG-13

By: John DeSando

Dying is about the deadliest topic in any medium partly because it reminds us of our last end, or as Alexander Pope said, “Send not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” An accomplished documentarian, Kirsten Johnson, takes that topic and makes it a sweet future as she orchestrates scenarios for her father’s death with him starring while alive in Dick Johnson is Dead.

It is as if she believes that playing with a bit of gallows humor might at least stave off the Alzheimer’s disease for her dad that her mother succumbed to a few years ago. The magic part of this unusual documentary is the love of father and daughter evident in every light-hearted scene. Be he knocked dead by a construction beam or actually experience a heart attack, she and he are collaborating on this doc as professionals (he is a psychiatrist) who know enough about life to make death an acceptable adjunct to a life that was worth living.

Dick Johnson is not much as an actor depicting his own death, but he is a father who has loved his child, his late wife, and his friends, of which he has a multitude. His love shines through in each frame making this the most realistic fictionalized death on film this year (and most likely the only one).

My other favorite doc this year is David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, which also defeats the death of earth through our own collaboration with Nature. In both films, life is affirmed in the face of daunting realities such as our responsibility for choking the atmosphere or just living till we die.

Kirstin’s loving handling of a potentially crippling topic is a tribute to her as an accomplished filmmaker who can create in the face of heavy emotional weight. It is even more a tribute to her as a daughter who loves her father unconditionally and forever—a state she uses to keep her dad in her mind forever.

“Because I could not stop for death-He kindly stopped for me.” Emily Dickinson

Thanks to my daughter, Thea, who tipped me off to this exceptional doc—we share several sympathies with the film.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Thea de Sousa is a writer and editor.

Contact him at