Walk the Line

Johnny Cash was intimately acquainted the line. That’s the line between fidelity and infidelity, soberness and drunkenness–good and evil. On one hand he was a gospel singing icon of country music, host of his own family hour variety show. On the other, he was one of the original rockabilly rebels who recorded at Sun Records and wrote songs from the viewpoint of murderers and felons. He had a problem with pills and alcohol, and didn’t get along with authority.

The movie starts with Johnny as a child. His saintly older brother, Jack dies in an accident. It was as if Johnny or J.R. as his family called him, had lost his moral anchor and was drifting in a sea of temptation until years later when he met June Carter, who redeemed him with her love.

That’s the basic plot of Walk the Line. It’s really more of a love story than a biopic. James Mangold, the director, limited the scope of the film to that basic elemental story. I wish more biopic directors would learn this lesson.

In any project like this it’s the performances that make or break. Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t exactly capture Cash, not in the way that Philip Seymour Hoffman captures Truman Capote or David Strathairn did Edward R. Murrow, but Phoenix does give us a sort of essence, a line portrait if you will. And unlike a lot of previous portraits you understand him, the rage that drives him, and the guilt that tears him apart.

Reese Witherspoon is terrific as June Carter. She captures so many nuances of this nice girl in an industry that doesn’t favor nice girls. You see the pain of guilt as she makes one moral compromise after another. And yet she doesn’t give away everything. Deep down, she remains decent. Which is why she’s able to redeem Johnny Cash.

Of course, this is a limited account of events. The couple lived most of their lives in the period following the scope of this movie. Cash’s life and marriage had its ups and downs. He had to walk that line the rest of his life.


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