“I’m not leaving again. I’m home for good.”
Movies like Thank You For Your Service are hard to get right. We’ve seen the emotional after effects of war in truly great films like The Hurt Locker and All Quiet on the Western Front. And we’ve also witnessed it in complete misfires such as the falsely nationalistic propaganda piece American Sniper and last year’s tone-deaf Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. How do you recount factual or inspired stories without becoming a vehicle for blind hero-worship, or on the other end of the spectrum, a rallying cry against war itself? As we’ve been reminded in 2017, even peaceful protests can spark great anger, setting off bombs of presumed hatred for the military. No matter the angle you take there’s going to be some backlash. As a result, Thank You For Your Service mindfully chooses to march down the middle. It’s an admirable path, and one that hurts the picture as much as it separates it from the other flag-waving junk out there.
After 3 deployments in Iraq, it’s time for Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) to call it quits. He’s seated next to his buddies on the return flight home. Solo (Beulah Koale), a bulky and charming Samoan man heads back to his lady (Keisha Castle-Hughes). So does Billy (Joe Cole in a scene-stealing, short-lived performance), expecting to get hitched shortly after landing. Waiting for Adam is his wife Saskia (Haley Bennett, an actress with the look and the internal prowess of a star…she’s limitless) and two kids, as well as a deceased man’s widow (Amy Schumer, miscast and awkwardly maudlin) demanding answers to the hardest of questions. The crowd in the airport hangar is full of life, then they disperse, the congratulations dissipate, and these soldiers are returned to a world where they don’t feel they belong. PTSD begins to set in. The brain becomes another casualty of war. Some may truly think that all is fair in love and war, but I’d argue that this film, and the better versions of this story, proves otherwise. What’s fair about being chewed up and spit out unless you’re bubblegum?
I say kudos to Jason Hall for choosing and writing a challenging feature to serve as his directorial debut. Thank You For Your Service is no slow-pitched softball. Hall really digs into the psyche of the tormented soldiers, bouncing between genres and offering up as many hallucinatory thrills as he does fraternal laughs and dark drama. And while this film is infinitely better written than his previous movie American Sniper – a story so jingoistic and inflated with pride that I still can’t last more than 10 minutes before turning it off – the direction hiccups for the entirety. I attribute that to Hall’s freshman status as much as I do a movie about soldiers who don’t want to speak up. The script often settles for the kind of awkward melodrama you’d expect from something like a bad John Lee Hancock film (The Blindside, The Founder), and I believe a more thoughtful director would have (hopefully) allowed the performers to speak with their eyes instead of their limbs. There’s plenty of trauma in the pupils of these actors, yet Hall prefers to landscape every scene rather to showcase the pieces in front of the camera.
Thank You For Your Service is anything but a great film, and yet it is very vital one. I’ll be honest…I did not like the majority of the movie as I sat in the theater. It felt too humble and was directed with little to no personality. Important dramatic beats seemed to be missing. Subtlety was of no concern. The chaotic narrative lacked real world grit. But upon reflection, Hall’s film taps into the uncomfortable frustration of our veterans, and it’s a film that speaks up for the brave men and women who don’t want to burden others with their overbearing load. I imagine that must be a byproduct of the military way. In interviews, Miles Teller – once again proving that his acting chops surpass his boyish charm – said that more often than not soldiers are greeted back into the real world and then forgotten. The very title of Thank You For Your Service attests to this statement, and the film itself, while a bit misconstrued with the theme and wayward with the tone, serves as a prompt to military members and to everyday citizens that conversation must exceed greeting card messages to establish and improve a shared dialogue and sense of empathy. A better version of this story will be made sooner than later. For now, this film will more than suffice.
“There is no cure for trauma, but we can learn how to manage it.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5