Dear John opens with that enduring cinematic cliché, the voice-over. Our soldier hero John Tyree (Channing Tatum) has written a letter, describing what went through his head after he was shot and lay bleeding on the ground. John recalls a childhood trip to the U.S. mint and his boyhood fascination with coins, which leads to the realization that he too is a kind of “coin,” minted by and stamped with uniformity by the US Army.
It’s a terribly clumsy metaphor, and one that director Lasse Hallström maintains throughout the film, as the numismatic activities of John’s father (Richard Jenkins) become central to the bonding of John and his true love Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). The John-as-coin metaphor is apt, however, in relation to Tatum, who embodies the kind of boy-next-door bonhomie and “All-American” good looks celebrated by film and fashion. Indeed, Tatum began his career as a model for Abercrombie & Fitch, a company that likes its models uniformly beautiful and uniformly boring.
Just so, John is a cipher, available for a range of viewer fantasies. A reformed bad boy who is patriotic, steadfast, and respectful of women, his blandness is treated as a virtue here. The same goes for Savannah. As they get to know each other, John quizzes Savannah about herself and her habits, worried that she’s “too good to be true.” And she is. She doesn’t drink or smoke or sleep around. They have only two weeks before John’s is set to ship back to Iraq. He’s a good guy, she’s a very good girl. Of course they will fall in love.
Such clichés suffuse Dear John, down to the repetitious soft-focus close-ups of Savannah and excuses to get John’s shirt off; they meet on the South Carolina coast and he’s a surfer. While this dreck is mostly mildly groan-inducing, in one instance, Dear John‘s stereotypes become patently offensive.
Part of Savannah’s “goodness” is her love of both horses and children with developmental difficulties and disabilities. “Luckily,” her parents are rich and own horses, and family friend Tim (Henry Thomas) has a son, Alan (played at different ages by Braeden Reed and Luke Benward), who has autism. Her experiences with Alan have inspired her to major in Special Education and dream of opening a summer camp for children with Autism. When she takes Alan horseback riding for the first time, Savannah realizes that horses and people with autism share a common connection. As she surmises to John, like horses, Alan has some kind of extraordinary perception, like he can “sense evil or something.” Indeed, this gift establishes John’s own status as a “good guy,” for when he first meets Alan, the boy immediately takes a liking to him, talks to him, and remembers his name, which Savannah observes Alan rarely does with anybody.
This connection of horses and their sensory perception to people with autism is offensive on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it reduces people with autism to the sub-or-non-human. Savannah even plans to call her summer retreat for kids with autism “Camp Horse Sense.” While the term used colloquially refers to solid “common sense,” in this context, it suggests only simplicity and mental enfeeblement.
The history of disability representation, whether of physical or mental differences from so-called norms, is rife with these sorts of images. And while Dear John tries to maintain that Savannah’s formulation is “positive,” seeing in Alan a sort of “gift” to which the normatively bodied don’t have access, such stereotyping is patronizing at best. At worst, such connections are used as an excuse through which to deny people with disabilities basic civil and human rights. It’s at this moment, when good girl Savannah connects “horse sense” and autism, and elevates such inhumanity to the realm of some sort of transcendent good, that you realize just how very bad Dear John is.