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An American icon revealed

"Walk the Line"
Movie review
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Nov. 23, 2005

Directed by James Mangold, Written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold
Based on the books "Cash" and
"The Man in Black" by Johnny Cash

Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin,
Robert Patrick, Dallas Robert, Shelby Lynne,
Tyler Hilton, Waylon Payne, Shooter Jennings
136 Minutes
Rated PG-13 (for some language, thematic material
and depiction of drug dependency)

Movie review by David Malsch

If you were to assemble a list of people that truly symbolized this country for all it's worth there are two names that would have to be there, Muhammad Ali and Johnny Cash. These perfect beings that led imperfect lives symbolize so much of what makes America great. They have become part of this country's DNA. Others would probably mention Presidents or Scholars on that list but for my money Ali and Cash make me proud to be an American especially at a time when that's a hard thing to do. They were bigger than life and remain so even though one has left us and the other is deathly ill. There will never be another two like them, ever.

Walk the Line "Walk the Line" is the story of Johnny Cash, or at least the key 25 years of his life. We first meet Cash as a 12-year old living in Arkansas. Obsessed with the radio and his big brother Jack, the spend their days working in the cotton fields with their domineering father Ray (Robert Patrick) and music loving mother Carrie (Shelby Lynne). In his free time Johnny fishes and talks about life with his big brother Jack until an accident takes Jack's life. Once old enough Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) joins the Air Force (to escape his father's wrath) and heads to Germany where he buys a guitar and starts to write songs. After the service he marries a girl named Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), has a baby and takes a unsuccessful job being a door-to-door salesman until he stumbles across Sun Records recording studio and Producer Sam Phillips (Dallas Robert).

After a less than impressive audition for Phillips with even lesser impressive band, Cash unleashes the beginnings of "Folsom Prison Blues" and gets a recording contract and heads out on the road in 1955. It is on that tour with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley where he starts to make a name for himself and meets the love of his life June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). From that fateful meeting backstage in 1955, it is a 13-year pursuit that Cash undertakes to land the woman of his dreams. But it's those 13-years that nearly kill the man with alcohol, drugs and groupies. His marriage to Vivian crumbles along with his relationship with his three daughters, he becomes addicted to prescription drugs and the only person there to save him from it all is June. After numerous marriage proposal letdowns, Cash gives it one more try while both him and June are on stage in Canada where she eventually says yes before thousands of people. Beyond the credits of the film, Johnny and June stayed married for over 35 years. June died in 2003 and Johnny followed her four months later.

"Walk the Line" is based on two autobiographies that Cash penned late in his life and were adapted by Gill Dennis and filmmaker James Mangold. Every studio turned it down despite the endless hours Mangold spent with both Carter and Cash to make the story perfect. Biopics are a tricky business because they rarely ever project the greatness of their subjects, cramming a life like Cash's into a 136-minute film is not an easy task. "Walk the Line" is far from perfect but it is a really good film. I am perhaps the only person in the world that hated the similarly theme biopic "Ray" that starred Jamie Foxx, comparing those two films together makes this one out to be a masterpiece, but in the same breath it is far from great like a "Coal Miner's Daughter."

What makes this film great, is the performances of Phoenix and Witherspoon, they are both terrific. Unlike Foxx's imitation of Ray Charles, Phoenix goes beyond that and gives the performance of his career. Both Phoenix and Witherspoon did their own singing for this film instead of being dubbed over like Foxx was. Once you hear Phoenix hit that line "San Antoine" in "Folsom Prison Blues" you can't help but be impressed with what he brought to the role. He doesn't necessarily look like Cash, the way Foxx did with Ray Charles but who does working in Hollywood today. Phoenix's performance is one of the three great performances this year by an actor.

The best parts of this film happen on stage. The live and studio performances are some of the best ever filmed. The problem with "Walk the Line" is that it centers far too much on Cash's demons and not enough on what June Carter loved the most, the man himself and his amazing talents, there is far too much back stage in this film than front of stage. It is the exact thing that ruined other biopics about other great men like Ali and Chaplin. I would love to have seen less of Elvis and Jerry Lee and more Waylon Jennings or even Bob Dylan who deserves as much credit for resurrecting Cash's career than June Carter does. Unfortunately, "Walk the Line" is more about the love affair between these two people instead of what we love the most about this man in black. But in this Paris Hilton world we live in now, it is refreshing to be reacquainted with a real talent, the like of which we may never see again in our lifetime.

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