for strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material and brief nudity
Haley Bennett, Amy Schumer, Miles Teller, Joe Cole, Keisha Castle-Hughes
Universal Pictures on
Over the years, war films have come into and gone out of vogue. At one point, they were mostly about heroism and valor on the battlefield but that changed with 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler's story about how winning the war across the sea didn't mean winning the peace upon returning home. PTSD happened long before it entered the vernacular but, over the decades since The Best Years of Our Lives, it has become an increasingly important aspect of films that examine life after combat. Thank You for Your Service is the latest movie to explore this sometimes-forgotten element of a soldier's experience. The conflict here is the same one that gave birth to American Sniper (which was written by Jason Hull, who wrote and directed this film) but, as with The Deer Hunter, it explores hidden wounds to the psyche while offering a none-too-subtle indictment of the government (not for taking men into battle but for abandoning them to a morass of red tape and poor service once their fighting is done). It's almost as if these men, like the equipment they use, can be discarded once they are no longer productive.
Hall, making his directorial debut, has adapted Thank You for Your Service from the nonfiction book by David Finkel. The real-life underpinning of the film is undoubtedly one reason for its believability and verisimilitude. Only toward the end do we feel the influence of Hollywood creeping into the production with its need for moments of high drama and closure. For the most part, however, this is a well-formed tale of pain and tragedy about men who give up everything and get little in return. While they're overseas, "going home" is the dream. When it happens, it can become a nightmare. They may have medals but their mind's eye sees not the moments of heroism but images of horror and failure.
Such is the case for Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), Tausolo Aieti (Beulah Koale), and Will Waller (Joe Cole), three compatriots who have arrived stateside on the same flight. When we first meet them, they appear "normal", or at least as normal as can be expected for men to have spent so much time in Iraq, dodging IEDs and exchanging fire with insurgents. It soon becomes clear that "normal" is a ruse - a brave mask they have worn to fool others and perhaps themselves. Solo has holes in his memory and is afflicted with bursts of uncontrollable rage. Adam is sunk into a deep depression where everything seems hopeless. And Will, after learning of his girlfriend's abandonment, takes his own life in a stark, shocking scene that happens before the movie is 15 minutes old.
It would be nice to say Thank You for Your Service offers the experience of outliers but that doesn't seem to be the case. The VA, overwhelmed by so many requests, has a months-long backlog. The scenes in which Solo and Adam navigate the bureaucracy plays almost like black comedy, perhaps something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, except that there's nothing funny about the treatment being accorded to these men.
Ultimately, the film's tone is hopeful. That at least saves Thank You for Your Service from being a complete downer. This is about men who, after only a short period of denial, recognize their peril and seek to get help. Adam is supported by his loving wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), who, despite not knowing what her husband needs, recognizes that he needs something. After painting a bleak picture, Hall provides us with the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel" - something not all PTSD films have done.
Miles Teller gives a mature interpretation of a conflicted man who can seem calm and at ease at one moment and near to the breaking point the next. The cynic would suggest that this is a foray into Oscar nomination territory but, although I thought he was very good as Adam, I found him to be more compelling a few years ago in Whiplash, although a similar intensity is evident in both performances. Beulah Koale's portrayal of an unstable former soldier echoes that of Tobey Maguire in Brothers. Amy Schumer, as the wife of a soldier killed in Iraq, is excellent in a 100% straight role.
There are times when the characters feel more real than their circumstances, which are dictated by a mix of true-to-life incidents and the contortions necessary to groom the story into a workable motion picture narrative. Some PTSD movies (like First Blood) include a share of "rah rah" moments to satisfy certain elements of the audience. There's none of that here. Thank You for Your Service is straightforward drama and leaves an uneasy impression about how much more the recipients of that platitude are owed than what the government is giving them.
© 2017 James Berardinelli
Cinemas About Town