"Walk The Line": Review
James Mangold's "Walk the Line" is a very good example of the music biopic genre. The screenplay, co-written by Mangold and Dennis Evans, is the standard-issue endoskeleton: early trauma, rebellion, struggle, alienation, success, addiction, love, recovery, and redemption. The story follows Johnny Cash from his rural boyhood to his engagement to June Carter. The script is relatively pedestrian, but it provides a sturdy frame for the acting and the cinematography.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. Mangold decided to let both leads actually sing instead of lip synching, a decision that some reviewers find distracting. Pheonix and Witherspoon are competent singers and credible mimics, but it's impossible to ignore the gap between the actors and the real thing. On the whole, I think Mangold made the right choice. The best scenes in "Walk the Line" are the close-ups of Johnny and June performing together. Those shots have an electric intimacy that's unmatched in their spoken exchanges. I doubt performances of the same caliber could have been achieved had the actors been overdubbed.
"I Walk the Line" had pretty good cinematography. Phedon Papamichael likes wide shots with a very sharp focus on foreground figures against a very large blurry background. When it works well, this style creates a sense of immediacy. The shallow depth of field is most effective in scenes based on classic concert footage. You feel as if you're suddenling in the midst of an event you've watched many times from a distance. Papamichael overuses this approach, however and the blur gets distracting in some daylight and well-lit indoor shots.
Reese Witherspoon delivers an excellent performance as June Carter. Witherspoon plays Carter as a strong, smart woman, and perhaps most importantly, as a seasoned entertainer and consummate professional.
Unfortunately, "Walk The Line" makes Johnny Cash's pursuit of June seem almost one-sided. A lot of people disagree with me, but I don't think the movie captures June Carter's lust or her ambivalence towards Cash. We see June writing "Ring of Fire," but the critical context is left out. "Ring of Fire" is about all-consuming sexual passion, written by someone who takes the prospect of eternal damnation very seriously. In a radio essay, Sarah Vowell quotes June as saying that she felt as if she was being burned alive when she wrote the song. For some reason, the movie has Carter writing "Ring of Fire" much later in her relationship with Cash. In fact, she wrote the song while she was still married to another man. "I Wallk the Line" doesn't come close to capturing the intensity of June Carter's feelings. (Listen to Sarah Vowell's Cash essay. The segment starts 47 minutes into the program.)
June is a very well-developed character, but she serves a very circumscribed role within the biopic framework. The story requires a good woman to save Johnny, and that's primarily what Carter's character is there for. This is disappointing because "Walk the Line" is first and foremost a love story. It would have been nice to explore the complexity of June's feelings for Jonhnny in more detail.
Phoenix plays a convincing Johnny Cash. He has the mannerisms down and his chemistry with Witherspoon is terrific. Unfortunately, his character is written as a generic maverick. Unfortunately, the film offers little insight into Cash as an artist. As for Cash's emotional life, the film assigns overwhelming significance to the death of Cash's brother and the disapproval of his father. For the most part, these themes come across as trite and unilluminating. The childhood issues seem more like shorthand for alienation than explanations for the character's motives.
Overall, I recommend "Walk the Line." It's not a great movie, but it's an excellent example of its type.