Apparently we have reached the point at which the war on terror is acceptable fodder as the backdrop for a Nicholas Sparks romantic weepie, and it might just qualify as progress. Two very different movies about modern American soldiers in love open this week, and while The Messenger is busy getting Oscar nominations (for its screenplay and for co-star Woody Harrelson) and Sparks adaptation Dear John is courting the moms of middle America, their subject matter is surprisingly similar. Both deal with the difficulty of troops adjusting to civilian life after time in combat, and both document the toll that the war takes on soldiers’ loved ones. In Dear John, love conquers all, or at least most, but even The Messenger offers romance as a salve for the wounds of war.
The Messenger opens with Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), home from a tour in Iraq after being wounded in battle, hooking up with what appears to be his girlfriend (Jena Malone). But it quickly becomes apparent that the woman who picks him up from the airport and shares a bed with him for a night is actually his ex, the woman who left while he was overseas and who is now engaged to another man. Dear John’s Army Special Forces officer John Tyree (Channing Tatum) also loses his girlfriend while he’s deployed overseas, only he doesn’t get a quick roll in the hay when he returns.
While The Messenger opts for messy realism when it comes to romance, Dear John director Lasse Hallstrom, following novelist Sparks’ lead, leans heavy on melodrama, and John’s break-up with college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him devastated for years, unwilling even to return to the U.S. until his father (Richard Jenkins) is on his deathbed.
- The Messenger
- Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton.
- Directed by Oren Moverman.
- Rated R. Opens Friday.
- Dear John
Both John and Will struggle to make connections outside of the military, and feel alienated from the people they meet in their everyday lives back home. Will is assigned to the Army’s death-notification team with the veteran Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson), charged with the horrific task of traveling to soldiers’ homes and notifying families that their loved ones have died. One of the people Will has to talk to is Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), a quiet young mother to whom he takes a liking. Their tentative, halting romance forms the movie’s core, except the episodic nature of the story means it sort of comes and goes, as does the time that Will spends with Tony.
Messenger co-writer and director Oren Moverman is interested in the range of reactions that soldiers and civilians have to the horrors of war, and so he downplays the obviously redemptive story of Will’s romance with Olivia. Instead he focuses on angry family members, tense medical visits and Tony’s never-ending quest to get laid. There isn’t a single glimpse of battlefield action in The Messenger, but Foster effectively conveys the intensity of warfare in a long speech revealing how Will was injured.
Hallstrom, however, spends plenty of time on his glamorized war scenes, something of a surprise in a movie built around romance and sentiment. Dear John may feature an image of the Twin Towers in flames on 9/11, and it may show John getting shot by enemy insurgents in the Middle East, but those are merely tools to move the story along, artificial obstacles keeping John and Savannah apart, not much different from angry parents or jealous suitors.
Eventually Dear John piles on so much tragedy—bullet wounds, strokes, cancer, autism, financial ruin—that it becomes laughable, a parade of contrivances keeping the bland lovers apart (Tatum, as ever, is positively Keanu Reeves-ian in his lack of range and expressiveness). The Messenger features better acting and a more modulated tone, but it too has difficulty figuring out what kind of movie it wants to be. Most heartening, though, is that neither film is interested in being a political statement.