Fatherhood is hard enough when two parents live in the same house. It’s almost impossible when Dad’s 6,000 miles away.
Charles Monroe King, an Army first sergeant serving in Iraq, feels every inch of that separation—every millimeter of distance between him and his partner, Dana, and his newborn son, Jordan.
He has so much to say to Jordan, so much to share. And while Charles plans to be a big part of his little boy’s life, soldiers don’t always get the choice. The Army asks a lot of its people: long hours, long stretches away from family, long trips to scary places. And sometimes, it asks for even more.
Charles knows this, and he knows it well. He’s seen the wages war extracts. He’s in charge of 150 young men—giving them the tools they’ll need to fight and live and return home. But even so, not all of them do. He’s helped bury many a soldier. He’d be foolish to imagine that he’s immune to war’s dangers—that being a father somehow protects him.
So—with a little prodding from Dana—Charles starts writing. And writing. He answers the questions that many boys need answered: What does it mean to be a man? A Black man? A good man? He shares stories from his life, freer in thought on paper than he ever has been in person.
He writes for 200 pages, and he’s still not done.
Except, tragically, he is.
Sometimes, the Army asks for more. Sometimes, it asks for everything—blood, bone and breath.
But this father’s journal—pen and paper, words and art—remains. And for Jordan and Dana, perhaps it’ll be enough.
If Charles’ journal seeks to helps his son become the man Charles thinks he should be, A Journal for Jordan is a testament to the man that Charles was.
Charles is the sort of fella that many a mom and dad would want their daughter to marry: conscientious, protective, dutiful, loving. He’s curiously old-fashioned in ways that Dana—who lives in New York City—finds at first disconcerting but ultimately charming. He takes his relationship with her very seriously, and he loves being a father—describing it as one of the best things to happen to him.
But he cares deeply for the men under him in the Army, too—a love that causes friction between himself and Dana at times. For instance, Charles doesn’t request time off to be present for Jordan’s birth: He feels like he needs to be with his men during that critical time. He volunteers for dangerous missions that he doesn’t need to volunteer for, because (as Dana says) he’d never let his men do something he wasn’t willing to do, too.
The movie indicates that the journal serves its purpose in Jordan’s life. Though only 13 when given it to read, the teen devours his father’s words—throwing himself into a strict fitness regimen (his dad had been a fitness nut), internalizing lessons about how to treat others around him and even gently edging into the role of his mom’s protector.
And while the movie’s focus is really on these two male characters as seen through Dana’s eyes, let’s not diminish this mother’s own role in her son’s upbringing. Being a single mom isn’t easy (as the movie illustrates). And talking to Jordan about his father is hard on her. But she gathers the strength to do so (through both her own writings and the stories she tells him directly) and encourages him to read every word his father wrote to him, even as she encouraged Charles to write those words—honestly, even painfully, if necessary.
Dana knows that Charles is different from a lot of the men she’s known before. One of her first indications: When they go out for breakfast and Charles insists on saying a quick, private, silent prayer. (The movie is based on a true story, and the real Dana Canedy—a one-time editor for The New York Times—says that Charles would pray every morning.)
Dana once pushed back on Charles’ faith: How could he be a soldier—see all that he’s seen—and still believe in God? she asked. “I believe in evil, too,” he answered simply. And Charles alluded to faith in some of his journal entries. In one real entry referred to in the film, Charles wrote, “Never be ashamed to cry. No man is too good to get on his knee and humble himself to God.” We see a picture that Charles drew of himself as an angel, bowing.
A family says grace at the dinner table. A prayer is said at a graveside. We see Christian-tinged memorial services and hundreds of tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery, each emblazoned with a symbol of faith at the top.
Charles and Dana never married—though Charles had proposed, and the two had planned to get hitched after his current tour. But the two had a passionate physical relationship, and many of their intimate moments are showcased on screen.
In one instance, the two prepare to have sex: Charles’ backside is exposed to the camera; and as they make out, most of Dana’s breasts are exposed, too. We see plenty of skin and suggestive movements there and elsewhere, and in another scene the two lie in bed, only partly covered in sheets. (Charles feels particularly exposed, with one full side of his body uncovered, albeit without exposing anything critical.) They kiss frequently.
Though the two never get married, they are engaged, and it’s clear the relationship means a lot to both of them. Charles asks Dana to be his girlfriend with what Dana sees as almost comical seriousness: “I want you to be my lady,” Charles tells her, to which Dana reminds him that they’re two adults, and the declaration sounds hopelessly quaint. But eventually Charles gets his way.
The two later have a blunt discussion about what soldiers do when sexual urges strike so far away from their spouses: She tells Charles that if he needs release, he can seek out company elsewhere, but Charles firmly rejects the offer. “Have you lost your mind?” he says. “I would never disrespect you or my son like that!” (And he jokingly tells Dana that she better not think she can fool around while he’s away, either.)
But as mentioned, Charles’ dedication to his soldiers causes some friction and even jealousy. “You know I have to be there for my men,” he insists. “What about me?!” she asks.
Charles works out shirtless at times, and some of Dana’s friends (including a gay man) ogle his rear. They give Dana frank sexual advice—teasing her regarding some of her habits during past physical relationships—and after Charles’ death, they give her a sex toy for her birthday (with some ribald commentary included as well). She’s examining the gift when her teen son walks in on her. When he asks what the device is, she tells him it’s a massager.
Dana tells Charles that her own father was unfaithful, which hurt her mother deeply (and left deep scars on the rest of the family). Charles confesses to Dana when they first meet that he’s going through a messy divorce. Dana suspects Charles of having an affair for a bit: In reality, Charles missed seeing Dana because he was in the hospital with one of his men. Charles jokes with Dana about extra virgin olive oil—“Just like you used to be.”
Despite Charles’ military vocation, we don’t see a lot of violence. A bomb does go off in the Iraqi desert, blowing a vehicle upward; people die and are injured in the blast. (One man seems seriously burned. Another bleeds out on the side of the road as someone tries to staunch the blood flow with gauze.)
When Dana asks Charles whether he’s ever killed anyone, Charles doesn’t answer. We see funerals and memorial services for soldiers felled in action. Jordan apparently gets into a fight at school, and he brings home a black eye. Footage of 9/11 plays out on television sets. In his journal, Charles tells Jordan, “Never lay a hand on any woman. Ever.”
We hear the s-word nearly a dozen times. Other profanities include “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—” and “d–n.” We also hear the n-word, Jordan says that a kid at hurled a racial slur at him.
When Dana goes back to her mother and father’s house for a visit, she spies her grown sister and brother out by the garage, smoking marijuana. (They claim they need to get high to deal with their parents.) Someone smokes cigarettes, too.
Dana goes out with her friends to bars and restaurants, where they drink martinis and mixed drinks. A party she and Michael throws also serves alcohol.
Dana says her mother doesn’t stay with her father out of love. “It’s fear,” she tells her siblings. When she first meets Charles, she tells a little lie to spend more time with him. She can also be a bit rude to drivers.
According to the Census Bureau, 19.7 million American kids grow up without a father living at home. That’s nearly a quarter of all children in the country. About 7 million men aren’t involved in their children’s lives at all.
Technically, the real Jordan Canedy—now 15 years old—is a member of that difficult fraternity. Mom Dana raised the boy pretty much on her own.
Except for the journal. And that journal made—and makes—a profound difference.
“I think what the journal represents is an ongoing conversation that Charles made sure he would always have with Jordan even after he was gone,” Canedy, now a senior vice president and publisher for Simon & Schuster, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I tell Jordan all the time that he’s having a conversation with his father that many people whose parents are alive don’t have. Sometimes he’ll ask me a question and I’ll say, go and see what your father had to say about that.”
A Journal for Jordan has its issues. Sex and sensuality play out on screen in uncomfortable ways that feel extreme for a PG-13 film. And neither Dana nor Charles always make the right decisions. The movie itself, directed by Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, can feel a little awkward at times.
But I love the core message behind it. In a world of absentee fathers and deadbeat dads, Charles Monroe King was so determined to help his little boy grow up that he wrote a book for him—a book brimming with love and truth. A book that represented not just Charles Monroe King, but the relationship he had with Jordan’s mother, and the relationship he longed to have with Jordan, too.
Canedy’s right: Often, a parent leaves so much unsaid, even when we’re with our kids for years and years and years. We forget to communicate our most important lessons. We forget to offer our deepest hopes. Sometimes—even if we say the words “I love you” five times a day—we forget to show it as we ought. We forget to take the time.
Charles didn’t forget. And for all its issues and indiscretions, for all the things that might’ve easily gone unshown, Charles’ love for his son shines through.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.