This has been a banner year for celebrity bios on film. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a lock for an Academy Award nomination for his performance as the title character in Capote and David Strathairn’s turn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck has won raves. Add to the list of possible nominees the two leads in Walk the Line. Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter are both Oscar worthy in a film that, unfortunately, isn’t a match to their talents.
Walk the Line follows the tried and true film biography template that Ray mined so successfully last year, providing the greatest hits of Cash’s life—a traumatic childhood event, a cruel father, years of pill popping, an on-again-off-again relationship with June Carter Cash and his rise to fame—in a competent but disposable film.
Phoenix—who imitates Cash’s vocals in a convincing deep rumble—brings the larger-than-life Cash crashing down to earth, playing him as a weak-willed man who fought a lifelong battle with the demons of his past. In Walk the Line’s version of events popping pills was the only remedy for Cash’s daddy issues. Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter is the best performance since Election. Her façade of cheeriness carefully masks Carter’s own inner heartbreak and inner strength. The scenes they share are the film’s strongest and it’s a pity that their relationship isn’t the main focus of the story.
Walk the Line is slick Hollywood product—everything that Johnny Cash wasn’t—and could have benefited from a more audacious and gritty approach.