No one would call Special Forces Sgt. John Tyree verbose. And the taciturn soldier is especially tongue-tied after meeting young and gentle Savannah Lynn Curtis on a South Carolina beach. Bumbling through his crush on the girl of his dreams, John asks her out. And over the brief course of his two-week leave, the couple falls in love.
When they must part ways—Savannah going back to college and John back to combat—they vow their affection and promise to write. Savannah makes him swear to "write everything."
For a year they both do, reinforcing their romance.
And if all went as planned in the world, after those 12 months they would have been married. But life throws complications—John's is known as Sept. 11, 2001. Feeling the call of duty trumping his personal preferences, an emotionally torn John reenlists in the Army.
Rather than pride, however, Savannah feels abandoned.
They send many more letters to each other. But gradually Savannah stops writing everything. And then she stops writing altogether. But not before she sends John an actual Dear John letter, telling him she's engaged to someone else. Wounded to the core, John must decide whether to despise her or to lovingly sacrifice for the woman who has meant so much to him.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
Loving, patient and accommodating, Savannah is a magnet for her long-time friend Tim's autistic child, Alan. John encourages Savannah's dreams of working with children who have special needs. She returns the favor by caring for John's emotionally distant father. It is Savannah, in fact, who begins to bridge the long-standing relational gap between John and his dad. (The two men have little in common and can't easily express their love.) Savannah teaches John how to recognize his father's worth and caring heart despite his social and emotional limitations.
Tim, whose wife has left him, continues to tell Alan that the boy's mother is on "vacation." John, whose own mother left him as a child, gently confronts Tim, telling him that the truth will spare his son the heartache of always waiting for her to come home.
Though he could have utterly turned his back on Savannah when she ditches him, John refuses to be bitter. In fact, he goes far beyond the call of duty by anonymously and selflessly contributing a large amount of money to facilitate an experimental cancer treatment for Savannah's new husband.
A party guest thanks John for his military service. As does the movie in its own way.
A soldier swears to God. Unexpected money is called a godsend. Autistic people are said to be able to sense evil.
For a woman who says she doesn't sleep around, Savannah is really sexual with John. In low-riding jeans and a revealing shirt, she throws herself onto him when the two meet at an airport. The two cuddle frequently, with Savannah in John's lap, or the couple wrestling or lying on top of each other, kissing and caressing.
And they do eventually have sex, too. As they undress each other we see his bare chest and her bra and panties. The camera zooms in on their torsos after the rest of her clothes come off. (Shadows and arms cover her breasts.)
Overseas, American soldiers joke about women in burkas wearing fishnet on their faces to look sexy. Men wear swimming trunks and women wear bikinis or short shorts. Posters in barracks reveal scantily clad women. John sees Savannah changing out of a wet shirt. (The camera shows her shoulders and upper chest.)
The film opens with a military combat flashback. John is shot twice in the shoulder by at least one sniper, who falls off a balcony after being shot by other soldiers. Television footage of 9/11 is shown.
John, who has a bruiser reputation, punches Tim and two other men, blackening Tim's eye and knocking the others down. Tim weakly and somewhat comically threatens John, saying that if he hurts Savannah, he'll have to break his leg.
While surfing, an emotionally distressed John allows himself to sink far under the water. It's difficult to tell whether he's contemplating life or pondering suicide.
John tells Savannah about a knife fight in which he got sliced above his eye. Savannah laughs that others shouldn't make fun of John, him being someone who could kill people with his bare hands.
Crude or Profane Language
A small handful of s-words. "Fricking" stands in for the f-word. God's name is abused two or three times. Once it's coupled with "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is misused about that same number of times. Other language includes a few uses each of "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑." Savannah says she has a constant stream of curse words running through her mind, though she never vocalizes them.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wine and beer are served at barbecues or with dinner. John talks about having been very drunk once.
Other Negative Elements
One of the more frustrating elements of this film is Savannah's emotional deceit. Rather than owning up to her feelings of loneliness and doubt about their relationship, she leads John on, not even giving him the dignity of a phone call to end their romance—yet she selfishly and naively persists in believing that he will still love and accept her friendship.
Dear John is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, an author whose very name seems to invoke uncontrollable sniffling. And, indeed, women were crying all over the place as Dear John's credits rolled at the screening I attended.
All I felt was aggravation.
If these ladies shed tears for the loyal, generous, jilted-and-misunderstood John, it would be understandable. But their weeping seemed more likely to have been caused by the idea that "helpless" Savannah was an equal sufferer in the heartbreak. After all, she had to devastate John. In tears herself, she spoke of being all alone during his deployments. She didn't know what to do, she said, and she needed to feel needed! She said she "didn't have a choice" but to abandon John because there was another man who needed her. And he wouldn't leave in the name of duty.
At one point Savannah howls at John, saying her life without him has no meaning and has became a "marathon." That is, she all but says she had to cheat on him because he forced her to through his absence.
Poor heroine. And by that I mean poor, foolish, selfish, emotionally puny heroine.
But I must move on now.
Romantically, Dear John is an inadvertent cautionary tale about the dangers of making any human being the center of one's universe. Both John and Savannah are so engulfed by their love affair that little else seems to fulfill them. But as many a man and woman has discovered over the ages, no mere human can satisfy anyone's every emotional need.
Savannah does seem to grow up a bit by story's end. And maybe she even realizes that her decision to marry another man while John was serving his country was selfish and hurtful. Once she decides to marry, she sticks it out, even when her husband gets cancer. It's at this point that many girls would rapidly backtrack and go back to the younger and stronger John. She doesn't. And I can't say enough good things about John through all of this. He's selfless almost to a fault, and while I don't know how wise it is for him to leave his heart resting in Savannah's otherwise occupied hands, he certainly can't be faulted for sacrificing financially to help her husband.
Go ahead: Ponder the rightness or wrongness of Savannah's decision to write that Dear John letter. You already know how I feel about it. But be moved by John's willingness to forgive. The second chance he offers Savannah. The redemption he extends. And the picture (flawed though it may be at times) of God he creates—for we all have been unfaithful to our divine lover.
Is it possible for all of that to exist in a movie that's more Harlequin romance than serious exploration of love found and lost? Grudgingly I'll say maybe. For there were times as I wrote this that I would have rather just summed things up with: The stoic hero gets emotionally battered and the silly heroine never learns enough to deserve him—and yet, inexplicably, he takes her back.
A tissue, if you please.