Overview: A group of U.S. soldiers return from a tour in Iraq and struggle to adapt back into civilian life. DreamWorks Pictures; 2017; Rated R; 109 minutes.
We are so grateful: In a recent episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, a veteran of the war in the Middle East introduces himself to a group of people. The first few all shake his hand and say, “Thank you for your service.” Larry David—ever the curmudgeon—offers up a mere “Nice to meet you.” After an awkward pause, everyone starts to scold David for not saying what he should have. David responds as only he can: “Three people already thanked him for his service. Does everybody need to thank him for his service?”
While I’m not sure if this is what “Curb” was getting at, it’s possible David is making a point that a stock response of “Thank you for your service,” while certainly polite, is essentially meaningless. It’s akin to placing a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on the back of your car or saying that you’re boycotting the NFL because players who choose to protest the anthem are “disrespecting the military.” The phrase “Thank you for your service” is never uttered in writer-director Jason Hall’s new film, but the irony of it is baked into every minute.
Welcome home: Thank You For Your Service follows working-class Iraq War veterans returning home to Kansas and trying to re-assimilate into civilian life, all dealing with different levels of trauma and PTSD (it’s based on a true story and the book by the same title by David Finkel). Sgt. Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) comes home to his wife (Hayley Bennett) and two young children living in a run-down rental home—he doesn’t know his kids well, and hopes to get back a previous job cutting grass to make ends meet. Tausolo “Solo” Aieti’s (Beulah Koale) partner is pregnant, and he struggles to remember things and is seemingly deteriorating emotionally by the day; still, he wants to return to the war. Billy Waller (Joe Cole) gets home to find that his fiancee has left him and cleared out their home. He pops pills to sleep, which he does with his gun lying alongside him on the hardwood floor. We also get glimpses of a soldier who was shot and is now confined to a wheelchair, and a widow—surprisingly and played relatively well by the comedian Amy Schumer—who wants to know the how, when, and why of her husband’s death.
What’s striking about this movie is how quiet and delicate it is. There are a few “action” scenes that depict important moments in the soldiers’ deployments which dominate their nightmares and contribute to their isolation and stress. But Hall confidently leans on the script and gets effective performances out of his actors, utilizing these strengths to depict the soldiers’ struggles—mostly by basically dropping us into their intimate interactions with one another, their families and the outside world. There’s a real evolution, particularly in Schumann, who we know from the opening scene is carrying a lot on his conscience. He does his best to appear “normal” when he returns home, and Teller does a nice job of slowly deconstructing the veneer that Schumann came home sporting.
While Schumann acts as the center of the movie, there’s a sneaking feeling throughout that the slightly more interesting story lies in Aieti. He’s from American Samoa, which, as he reminds a more senior military official, is a U.S. territory, and he says that the military “saved his life.” His condition rapidly deteriorates, the stress taking over his ability to remember or feel anything other than rage, angst, and fear. In one of the film’s more powerful moments, Schumann and Aieti finally decide to seek help via the local Veterans Affairs office. The waiting room is as bland, impersonal and crowded as any DMV—but instead of being filled with people annoyed they have to wait for a driver’s license, it’s filled with the battered and broken. Later, a desperate Aieti finds himself getting involved with a local criminal… who himself served in the Gulf War. While there are some loud, dramatic moments in Solo’s spiral, the quiet ones are most effective and where Koale shines; his pain comes through most hauntingly in his eyes. This is Koale’s first major motion picture role. Let’s hope there are many more in his future.
Ripple Effects: Hall also wrote American Sniper, a movie that was widely criticized for its lack of introspection into or criticism of the war effort. This is also a blindspot for Thank You For Your Service, though not as glaringly as it was in Sniper. There’s no doubt that Hall makes a case that the country ought to do a vastly better job taking care of its veterans. The movie isn’t about that, so while we see the system operating at its ineffective norm, Hall doesn’t fixate on institutional problems and ineffectiveness. You see the red tape, but Hall doesn’t choke us with it. You’re likely to decide the culprits and villains based on your politics. But the film may be just a bit better off by closing somewhat the safe distance it keeps from asking why Schumann, Aieti and the others were sent over there in the first place.
But that doesn’t take away from its effectiveness as a story about guilt. When we talk about veterans returning home from PTSD, we often stay pretty narrow-minded and general. We reduce the root issue to, “They saw some really bad stuff over there,” that being witness to or carrying out violent acts and death is where the weight comes from. I’m sure it certainly contributes, but Thank You For Your Service also tells us that the damage is borne in decisions gone wrong, mistakes and missteps, being fortunate to survive when others were not.
In Thank You For Your Service, we see how actions in war time have a lasting impact on the survivors. And we also see how the impacts on those survivors extend outward, too. The decisions made by elites to thrust poor and working class kids into battle have a ripple effect. We can claim all we want that we support the troops. If we really do, we have to offer more than a handshake and a platitude when they come home. And we have to ask why we’ve put them in these situations to begin with. And we’d be best to stop using their service as a narrative talking point when it suits us best.
Overall: A strong directorial debut for Hall, who gets subtle, emotionally raw performances out of a young cast led by Miles Teller and relative newcomer Beulah Koale, Thank You For Your Service is an effective story about grief, guilt, and collective societal disregard.
Featured Image: Dreamworks Pictures