Surely at this rate they are going to run out of people to profile in award-contending biopics. There’s one every year — pedigreed, important, with Oscar money behind it. Walk the Line, James Mangold’s attempt at distilling the life of Johnny Cash, fits right into the mould of Ray, A Beautiful Mind, The Aviator, and the like. At least the title is kind of creative.
Like all but the best entries into the genre, Walk the Line reduces Johnny Cash to a set of capital-I Issues — in this case, his conflict with his father and his adoration for June Carter. There is something peculiar about the way these very familiar elements show up here, however. For one thing, I was not convinced that the dad, though certainly discouraging and sometimes cruel, was necessarily wrong. For another, his affair with and eventual marriage to June seem not the result of love and devotion so much as sheer perseverance.
It is par for the course these days to make the subjects of biopics into unpleasant figures. It’s no fun to be adulatory, and portraying these grand figures as just a little insufferable has become a mark of integrity. This film is interesting in the way it threatens to take that trend to a new level while holding on to its harmless, populist biopic stripes. After watching Walk the Line, I’m not sure I’d necessarily like to sit next to Johnny Cash on the bus — he’s rash, impatient, uncaring, oblivious, a drug addict. At one point, he tells June that something will “work itself out,” and she snaps back, “no, it does not work itself out. People work it out for you, and you think it works itself out.” That seems about right — Cash as written here is essentially a child. He doesn’t know why things happen the way they do, or who has to sacrifice so that they happen, but he certainly knows what he wants.
Cash is portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix who, now that I think about it, has a tendency of playing his characters as overgrown kids — his Commodus in Gladiator was just a petulant child, really, and the hero of The Village was an awkward, repressed 13-year-old. I liked him in the role; he does his own singing — as does Reese Witherspoon as June — and if that doesn’t get him an Oscar, nothing will (Best Actor winner Jamie Foxx, by contrast, was dubbed over in Ray).
Indeed, Walk the Line is worthwhile mostly on account of being brought to you by phenomenally talented people. Watching the two leads here is profoundly impressive — they bring Cash and Carter to life as people, as singers, as historical figures. Contrast with Kevin Spacey’s tedious, self-serving performance as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea, otherwise known as the Kevin Spacey Revue. It takes more than the ability to act and the ability to sing. The most difficult part of playing someone famous is convincing us that the performance is not just an impersonation. Phoenix and Witherspoon pass the smell test.
Not to be ignored on the talent front is director James Mangold, who knows what he’s got here and makes the most of it. Leaning so heavily on the songs was a calculated risk, but they wind up being the best part of the movie, bar none. Mangold understands that musical sequences rarely work with a static camera and the performers center-screen, so he swoops the camera around them, swinging into close-up and back; watch what he does with Cash coming on stage wasted and on the verge of collapse. The story is told in flashback, compete with time-and-place subtitles, but he manages to find an elegant way of taking us through it; it helps that his framing device — Cash’s famous 1968 performance at Folsom Prison — is such a humdinger. Mangold’s reputation is as an “actor’s director,” which may explain some of the above, but perhaps Walk the Line will take his career beyond that label.
Mainstream adoration for this film is all but assured. It’s the kind of thing people love, and it’s just edgy enough so that it’s not unhip to love it. And, well, I liked it myself. It’s top-shelf, middle-brow Hollywood.