Movies like Avatar and Transformers - Revenge of the Fallen promote negative stereotypes of soldiers as heartless, mindless killing machines. But Dear John gives a human face to the men behind the military khaki and artillery.
John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is a member of the Army Special Forces. While on leave, he meets Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried), a college student who is visiting her parents during spring break. After a whirlwind, two-week romance, the pair faces a 12-month separation when John returns to active duty. Intent on continuing their budding relationship, John and Savannah commit to write to one another until his tour is over.
Though the letters arrive sporadically due to the lack of regular mail service, the notes become a godsend for the young officer during his difficult and dangerous mission. The couple’s honesty on paper also allows them to get to know one another better over time. Then just before John’s enlistment is up, the World Trade Towers are bombed. From their foreign posts, he and the rest of the members of his company watch in disbelief as footage of the crumbling buildings is shown on a newscast. Without hesitation, the other soldiers request permission to lengthen their tour of duty. But for John, the idea of a two-year extension feels like an eternity. Torn between his desire to be with Savannah and his commitment to protect his country, John faces one of the most difficult choices of his life.
Much like the movie Grace Is Gone, in which a father must tell his daughters their mother has been killed in combat, this film portrays the price of service as well as the boredom and intense moments of action endured by the troops. (In one scene, snipers attack the unit, wounding one and causing a flurry of activity as they seek cover.) Outfitted in bulletproof vests and combat gear, their job of patrolling enemy streets also extracts an emotional toll on the men that few civilians in this story appreciate. Ignorant of John’s background or the demands of military service, Savannah’s friend Randy (Scott Porter) needles John until he gets an explosive reaction from the soldier that results in facial injuries for a bystander.
Sacrifices made on the home front as well as in the arena of war are also strong components in this script. Left to raise his son on his own, John’s father (Richard Jenkins) craves routine and disdains conversation and affection. While John knows his father isn’t normal, he doesn’t have a name for the unusual behaviors. Fortunately for audience members, Richard Jenkins gives a compelling portrayal of an Autistic adult and brings depth to his character.
The screenplay, based on a book by Nicholas Sparks (who also penned the novel versions of Nights in Rodanthe, The Notebook and A Walk to Remember), has several moments contrived to steer the story toward a happier ending. Luckily a number of strong and emotion-filled performances by the cast overshadow some of the plot manipulations and help bring a believable tone to the production.
In an era of technology when the art of the hand-penned correspondence has been reduced to texting and email, Dear John is a compelling reminder of a letter’s power to connect people.