Dear John (review)
Love Letters from GWOT
Oh, it’s tragic, all right, what happens when lovers get separated by a war whipped up out of political bullshit. How dumb did Channing Tatum feel when he learned that he gave up a life with Amanda Seyfried — his perfect love! who’s so perfect and saintly that even when she promises that he’ll see her flaws later on, they’re the flaws of “being too perfect for her own good” and “being too saintly for her good”! — because George W. Bush and Tony Blair were just waiting for a pretense to invade Iraq?
Not that Dear John dares to tread anywhere near any narrative landmines like that. Goodness, no. It’s all about the Tragedy and the Sorrow and the Sacrifice and the Tears of War, which is always and inevitably Noble and Necessary, and never stupid and pointless and nothing more than a machine to abuse and misuse our honorable soldiers. Never mind that there’d be extra layers of Tragedy and Sorrow to a separation of lovers that was friggin’ pointless (unless Channing Tatum is meant to be feeling a deep abiding need to line the pockets of Halliburton and Blackwater execs). A whole lotta someones have been trying to turn Saddam Hussein into Hitler and the “Global War on Terror” into WWII — that is, something, ahem, Noble and Necessary. It hasn’t worked. It can’t work. And a movie like Dear John, which tries to latch onto the bullshit, must ultimately fail. Especially when it’s asking us to sympathize with Channing Tatum, who isn’t even particularly effective at convincing us he’s the shiny, bulging new instance of model-turned-“actor” — which he actually is! — never mind a lovelorn soldier sacrificing his own needs to his sense of patriotic duty.
Which isn’t to say that the real men and the real women who did and do serve in the armed forces in the 187 ongoing corporate-sponsored bush battles around the world — oo, what’ll be next? Yemen? Pakistan? Venezuela? the suspense is killing me! — don’t sacrifice their lives at home. Of course they do. But this mind-numbing stupid movie does those real people no justice.
It all begins in the ominous Spring of 2001 — 9/11 hovers in the horizon, but only we know that — when Tatum’s (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Public Enemies) Army Ranger John Tyree, on leave at home in North Carolina, meets a cute college student, Seyfried’s (Jennifer’s Body, Mamma Mia!) Savannah Curtis, on her spring break. (I like to imagine a parallel story about a soldier and cute college student named Carolina occurring in Georgia.) They don’t know there’s anything ominous going on, but the movie sure does: it positively drips with preposterous portents. You can be assured that when someone says something that would otherwise be innocuous — like, perhaps, “Mary went to the supermarket” — and director Lasse Hallstrom (Casanova, An Unfinished Life) lets the moment linger on just a tad too long… Well, you know that the supermarket is going to get blown up, or Mary will get kidnapped by a band of terrorist grocery baggers, or something absolutely Awful and Tragic is in the offing.
Chaste romancing ensues. Who the hell knows why: the lack of chemistry between Tatum and Seyfried is something of a scientific mystery. She’s appealing enough as a screen presence, and does the best she can with a character who is, generously, a caricature of feminine modesty and propriety and decency. But Tatum is a blank, an empty six-pack shell; he doesn’t have what it takes to bring a spark of life to a character who is, generously, a caricature of masculine unfocused aimlessness.
But that’s just the way Nicholas Sparks (A Walk to Remember, Message in a Bottle) rolls. Oh, didn’t I say? This is based on a Sparks novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], and all I can figure is that Sparks is a frustrated Hallmark writer. John’s commitment to the Army is almost up when he meets Savannah, and he’s all ready to leave as soon as he can. To do what, other than mumble incoherently at Savannah, we never quite understand. Perhaps he would continue to surf desultorily for the rest of his life, which he does quite a bit of here. There’s no sense whatsoever that there are possibilities for his life that don’t include military service, so there’s no drama when he reups after 9/11: there was no question that this is what he would do, Savannah’s big sad eyes notwithstanding.
John writes letters to Savannah from deserts and jungles and other not-North Carolina hellholes. Savannah sends letters to John describing how she’s living her life. Until the moment comes when… well, there’s a reason why the movie is called Dear John, and it cuts the legs out from under a story that already had not one whit of suspense to offer. It doesn’t have one genuinely, truly emotional moment to offer, either, at least not between John and Savannah. There’s one nice moment between John and his father (the always lovely Richard Jenkins: The Tale of Despereaux, Burn After Reading), but the story’s not supposed to be so much about them. Perhaps if it were…
But it isn’t. Instead, it’s a sappy greeting card, not a movie: “Sorry to hear your deployment in the GWOT has got you down.” And inside, it says: “At least it’s something you know will always be there for you.”