I was 19 when I fully understood that historians often can't grasp the complexities of the characters they purport to speak of. It's something I learned once in a history class, when a professor suggested that George Washington was less than devout and merely used civil religion to unify the nation. When I raised my hand to question this, I was told to bring in evidence to the contrary--which I did the next day, reading aloud from Washington's diary, in which he expressed his deep religious faith in the manner less of a president and more of an 18th-century revival preacher.

"Who should I believe, your textbook or his diary?" I asked the professor.

"Walk The Line " the Johnny Cash biopic, features some truly inspired acting--and singing--by Joaquin Phoenix (playing Cash), and Reese Witherspoon (playing his wife, June), and some great music under the direction of T-Bone Burnett. That's the good news. The bad news is that it tries hard to do what no one was able to do in life and what my history professor tried to do to our first president: separate Johnny Cash from his God.

There were four great loves in J.R. Cash's life: music, God, June Carter, and drugs. But "Walk The Line" pretends there were only three. It is Johnny Cash for the secular set.

The Almighty, omnipresent in Cash's life amidst his struggles to fight addiction, is barely worthy of a mention in "Walk The Line." Imagine watching a movie about Kurt Cobain and hearing the name Courtney Love mentioned once or twice as an aside, or for that matter watching Bud Abbott's life story and never being introduced to Lou Costello. Such is the silliness of trying to tell the Johnny Cash story and leaving out either of his real-life co-stars, God or June Carter.

To his credit, Rick Rubin, the rock producer who took an interest in Cash and produced several brilliant records in Cash's twilight years--known as the American Recordings--understood this and never attempted to keep God out of the records he produced for Cash. It was Rubin who helped bring Cash's heretofore secular and sacred worlds together, allowing street-smart songs like "I've Been Everywhere" and "Rusty Cage" to co-exist on the same records with worshipful songs like "Redemption" and "Spiritual." But Rick Rubin didn't produce this film, and it shows.

Fortunately for those who have from experience learned to be suspicious of historians (or filmmakers), Cash, not unlike George Washington, left behind his own words to set the record straight.

"Walk The Line" is a love story, with June Carter Cash seeming to get all the credit for helping her man overcome his addictions. The message is a simple one: We are all just the right woman or the right man away from salvation. It's reminiscent of that singularly noxious line from the film "Titanic": "He saved me in every way a person can be saved."

The message is driven home by the film's relentless obsession with showing us over and over again how mismatched Cash was with his first wife Vivian and how deficient she was because of her inability to realize her husband's genius. Enter June Carter, whose determined love turned her man around. But in "Cash-The Autobiography," published shortly before his death, Cash made it clear that while June was a help, it was God who ultimately helped him overcome his addictions.

"I'd left him but He hadn't left me."

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  • The key moment in Cash's turnaround happened when he tried a unique method of suicide--crawling through a cave hoping to never make it out alive. Cash wrote:

    The absolute lack of light was appropriate, for at that moment I was as far from God as I have ever been. My separation from Him, the deepest and most ravaging of the various kinds of loneliness I'd felt over the years seemed finally complete. It wasn't. I thought I'd left him but He hadn't left me. I felt something very powerful start to happen to me, a sensation of utter peace, clarity and sobriety. I didn't believe it at first. I couldn't understand it.... the feeling persisted though and then my mind started focusing on God.... there in Nickajack cave I became conscious of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God's time, not mine. I hadn't prayed over my decision to seek death in the cave, but that hadn't stopped God from intervening.I told my mother that God had saved me from killing myself. I told her I was ready to commit myself to Him and do whatever it took to get off drugs. I wasn't lying.

    In the wake of the box office success of "The Passion Of The Christ," 20th Century Fox and other studios are seeking to capitalize on the phenomenon by creating faith-friendly products, finally coming to the obvious conclusion that eluded them for so long: Millions of Americans want to experience media that affirms their faith instead of mocking or marginalizing it. What they don't yet seem to realize is that instead of creating an endless stream of third-rate productions about the end of the world and releasing them in a handful of markets or in churches, the best way to meet the demands of the red states is simply to faithfully retell great stories that have a strong faith component while simultaneously ensuring that they remain of interest to those who may not consider themselves religious or even spiritual. Any audience will put up with a certain amount of religion, so long as it is part of the natural fabric of a good story.

    "Walk The Line" is a faith-lite version of a faith-filled story, and if traditionalists are smart they will punish it for its unfaithfulness not with loud protests, but by giving it the treatment they so brilliantly dished out to another picture, "Saved," a film that depicted a Christian high school in a stereotypically negative fashion. That film's backers were practically begging for a boycott, which they correctly understood as the only thing likely to save their film from the trash heap of obscurity it so richly deserved to be tossed into. Instead what it got from the leadership of the faith community was the worst punishment of all: It was ignored.

    "Walk The Line" is a gorgeous movie, smartly told with some outstanding acting that will likely garner Reese Witherspoon an Academy Award nomination. It'd be a great movie if it weren't so manifestly incomplete. It releases in theaters on November 18th, a great day to stay outdoors and honor Cash's true memory by instead picking up a copy of "Cash-The Autobiography" or Steve Turner's "The Man Called Cash" and one of his American Recordings CDs, lovingly produced by an unlikely hero named Rick Rubin. He's a man who may not have shared Cash's faith, but well understood that Johnny Cash could never be understood in the absence of the God who gave him the strength to rebuild his shattered life as best he could, provided an angel named June to give him a second start, and empowered him to continue making unforgettable music that gave hope to many.

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