Maybe it's encouraging, in a way, that an America in crisis struggles so mightily to make crowd-pleasing war movies. Whatever his politics, no studio exec today would let a wide-release desert-war drama come right out and say what even the GOP increasingly admits: that Iraq was a mistake, that Afghanistan has been botched, that the mission has always been vague and unwinnable, that our soldiers hail from a working-class America that's damn near foreign to both the right's and left's ideas of “elitists.” Those same executives know that it’s impossible to wring the last decade and a half of military misadventure for triumphant jingoism — audiences know better. So, how can a Hollywood committed to thrills and uplift manage to honor, in movies that Americans will actually want to see, both the truth of those soldiers' experiences and the truth of the wars that they fight? Even in hits such as Lone Survivor and American Sniper, much of the reflexive cant about duty and heroism gets stripped of its last-century abstraction (flag, freedom, country). With the wars themselves FUBAR, what audiences get invited to take pride in is what our boys did for one another — and how much they suffered for it, there and at home.
Writer-director Jason Hall’s pained and earnest Thank You for Your Service (adapted from journalist David Finkel’s excellent book of the same title) goes further still in its refusal to celebrate. The film offers probably less than 10 minutes of in-country war footage, and unlike Sniper or Survivor, none of it seems crafted to pump you up. Instead, Hall brings the war home, tracking three discharged soldiers (played with aching hurt and camaraderie by Miles Teller, Beulah Koale and Joe Cole) who return to the Midwest and their families to find nothing the same as it was, especially themselves.
“My shit’s scrambled,” says Aieti, Koale’s character. What follows is a clear-eyed, heartsick and singularly honest American film about hollowed-out men finding themselves adrift in a hollowed-out country, though I must note that it’s also what you might call “a tough sit.” That’s not simply because of the grim subject matter. The central drama involves waiting for a man to find within himself the wherewithal to speak about what he’s feeling, to let himself let go, to admit there’s a problem and seek help. “I can take anything you can,” says Haley Bennett, in the role of Saskia, the wife of Sgt. Adam Schumann (Teller). “Anything but quiet.”
That’s a painfully familiar scenario for anyone acquainted with American men yet also one that plays against the strengths of studio filmmaking: Today’s Hollywood isn’t much for interiority, for revealing character through patient detail, for the examination of day-to-day living. Perhaps that’s the reason that Hall keeps edging the film toward flashier genres. He stages horror jump scares to suggest the trauma of feeling responsible for a soldier’s death, and seems to perk up the closer one of his desperate vets gets to turning Thank You for Your Service into a crime drama. (Another surprise: Amy Schumer turns up as something like the caring Christian conscience of Topeka, Kansas.)
Still, Bennett and Teller share strong scenes of strained tenderness. At the racetrack the night her husband makes it home from his final tour, Saskia offers, awkwardly, shouting over the roaring engines, to perform a surprise sex act right there in their shadowy patch of bleachers. He can’t tell if she’s joking or not, and she seems uncertain herself. She changes the subject, asking how this tour was different from the previous. Rather than specify, he walks away, up to the chainlink fence separating them from the track, and stares at nothing. She’ll only discover what he’s going through when she stumbles upon a VA mental health questionnaire he’s half filled out. Bennett is moving throughout the film, but never more so than when we see Saskia’s face as she reads the response her husband has selected after the statement, “When I think of things I did in the military I wish I were dead.” Teller’s role, meanwhile, demands that this most cheery of actors shut himself down; his Schumann only truly comes to life when drinking and laughing with his squadmates, but even then we sense that the character himself is acting, too. Out of the house, he seems relieved that at last he knows what part he’s supposed to play.
Thank You for Your Service covers the epidemic of suicides among veterans, the overcrowding of the VA system, the crushing months that it takes to get help and the occasional hostility, among some military types, toward the very idea of mental health care. Hall sugars up all this hard truth with climactic scenes of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, emotional breakthroughs and sudden new beginnings, but he eschews empty promises about life ever being easy for these soldiers. Instead, his film argues that heroism at home starts with opening up and seeking help. In that, his imperfect film is a public service worth being thankful for itself. It’s not always effective drama, but as an example for thousands of struggling American families, it’s a serious breakthrough.