Years from now, cinema-studies teachers will refer to Walk the Line as a textbook example of what a biopic looks like when it gets everything right.
Then again, "textbook" may be a dangerous word to use in this context I don't want to imply that the movie follows the by-the-numbers approach to memoir that's made pictures like Ray such exercises in legacy-minded mediocrity. This is one profile of an exemplary entertainer that doesn't make the mistake of granting equal weight to every aspect of his remarkable life. Where Ray couldn't decide if it was an anti-drug parable, a musical history lesson or a tale of disability conquered, Walk the Line never forgets that it's a love story and the late Johnny Cash's adoration of the effervescent June Carter is the sturdy framework on which all of the movie's arresting dramatic elements are hung.
Even in his youth, we're told, the young Johnny (Ridge Canipe) was smitten by June not the prettiest nor the most talented member of country's Carter family, but a blazing star of soul and kindness whose radiance he could feel from afar. As we follow the Arkansas boy through his life's extraordinary ups and downs dead brother, hypercritical dad, military service, pop-chart ascent, suicidal booze-and-pill habit it's his love of Carter that keeps him going. The fact that he's married to another woman becomes less and less of an obstacle to Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) as he and Carter (Reese Witherspoon) set out on a seemingly endless series of package tours, finding the road paved with friendship, challenge and temptation.
It's hard to make an audience root for the union of characters who by rights belong to others Carter goes through her own series of attachments as the years advance but Walk the Line does it by establishing an air of redemptive inevitability, with the courageous and tough Carter repeatedly saving Cash from melancholic self-immolation. What's most amazing is how heavily concert sequences figure in their on-screen relationship: Suggestive and/or uncomfortable duets reveal that this couple played out their protracted courtship largely in the spotlight. Phoenix's and Witherspoon's lip-synched sequences accomplish as much as any other film's best dialogue (that the actors are miming to their own singing voices is another choice that pays off grandly).
The nonmusical interludes are just as riveting. Phoenix may not look much like Cash, even under a slick black pompadour, but he nails the poetic suffering that made the singer a hero to outlaws and underdogs everywhere. And Witherspoon, in her finest work since Election, leaves an indelible impression of Carter as a woman who had to use all of her wits to survive in a cultural milieu that liked its starlets pretty and chaste. (She also enjoys one of the best introduction scenes a leading lady has ever been granted.)
Director/co-writer James Mangold, who showed a spirit of benevolence in 2001's Kate & Leopold (specifically the director's cut available on DVD), positively surpasses himself here. By pinning Cash's heritage on a romance plot any audience can appreciate, he entices us into acknowledging the singer's extra-amorous accomplishments like the sea change in popular culture that's suggested by the movie's framing scenario, Cash's daring and triumphant 1968 gig at Folsom State Prison. If the Man in Black's music and persona have ever mattered to you on any level, prepare to reacquaint yourself with a great American. And if all you're after is a decent date movie, welcome to the ring of fire.