You recently heard me complain about “dirty laundry” biopics that focus exclusively on their subjects’ problems instead of what made them great. One example of this was the recent Johnny Cash bio-pic, “Walk the Line”. This was a good movie, with great performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny and his wife June, but it seemed to me to ultimately miss the point of who Johnny was. Here were some of the problems I had:
- A lot of importance was placed on the childhood tragedy where Johnny’s brother died in a sawmill but this is a classic example of something that’s an obstacle, but not a conflict. It reveals no tragic flaw: Johnny doesn’t blame himself, nor should he. It’s depressing, but it’s not a personal challenge. There’s no need to include it.
- The movie is in love with the tired “he’s his own worst enemy” narrative that so many other bio-pics favor, but anyone who knows Johnny’s life knows that he had lots of interpersonal conflicts throughout his career as well, which are inherently more cinematic than watching someone grunt and moan while they battle their personal demons. (Of course, there’s always that old self-loathing standby: getting overcome by angst and trashing a room. To be fair, Phoenix does the best job of this I’ve ever seen on film, but it’s still a cliché.)
- As with many bio-pics, the movie treats drug addiction too much as an independent illness, rather than a symptom of underlying problems. In real life, drugs ultimately become both, but nobody ever beat drugs by focusing on their addiction. Instead they have to confront the personal pain that they’ve been self-medicating. The movie implies that his 1968 marriage to June filled the hole inside him so that he no longer needed drugs, but that’s just not the way life works—and it certainly wasn’t the case with Johnny, who continued to struggle with drugs until 1971 with many relapses thereafter.
- In fact, ending on his “triumphant” marriage to June seems totally arbitrary and phony. Only in Hollywood could it be considered heroic to leave your family for a richer, prettier wife! In the end, did Johnny do the right thing for himself? Yes, I believe so, but it’s got to be portrayed as a painful decision, not a stand-up-and-cheer moment! The implication that this was a triumphant move that solved all of Johnny’s problems is totally untrue and demeaning to the struggles Johnny and June went through together (not to mention insulting to the family he left behind!)
- Finally, while the movie did show Johnny playing in prisons, it de-politicized this act, as it did with his whole life. And ending in 1968, right before what I would call the most turbulent and truly heroic period of Johnny’s life, seems like a huge missed opportunity.
So tomorrow, I’ll tackle my biggest Meddling project yet: a beatsheet for a substantial re-write of the whole movie, exploring my version of a better Johnny Cash bio-pic.