From All Quiet on the Western Front to Saving Private Ryan, I’ve seen dozens of war movies through the years about everything from action in the trenches to postwar trauma on the home front. But the sober, nuanced, and deeply affecting Thank You For Your Service covers old ground with a fresh take and finds something new to say about it at the same time. The message here is not only that all wars are stupid and pointless, but also that after they end, the only people who remember them are the people who fought in them.
So it’s anybody’s guess what kind of box-office revenue will be generated by Thank You For Your Service. Based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist David Finkel, with keenly observed direction and a finely shaded, no-nonsense script by Jason Hall (writer of the hit movie American Sniper, making his directing debut), this penetrating and disturbing film looks at three physically disabled and psychologically damaged soldiers who return from Iraq to their home town in Kansas. Met with public indifference and the insulting bureaucratic red tape of civilian life, the film feels similar in theme to the William Wyler classic, The Best Years of Our Lives. But times have changed—the challenges for rehabilitation are greater now, and the future less hopeful than life was for returning soldiers after World War II. For the three disillusioned buddies in this film, things are bleaker now than they were in 1946.
The titular phrase is laden with irony. This is how the U.S. government formally acknowledges, by mail, what’s left of the men who miraculously survive military service and return to civilian life, regardless of whether they’re in one piece, half-dead or otherwise. The center-ring focus is on a young sergeant named Adam Schumann, played by the three-dimensional and tremendously captivating Miles Teller. In a flashback, we learn that he was riding shotgun in a humvee looking for snipers when his buddies were blown apart in an ambush that killed his best friend—an experience for which he feels a guilt too profound to describe. Adam tries hard to readjust, but the wife and two children he left behind are not the same, and neither is he. The two comrades who shared his experiences on the front lines have even bigger problems. Though they return from a daily routine of death and destruction loaded with citations and achievement medals, they’re haunted by inescapable memories of terror and body bags. Will (Joe Cole), whose fiancé has left him, sleeps on the floor of an empty house with his service pistol by his side. Solo (Beulah Koal), who suffers from brain injuries, not only becomes addicted to sleeping pills but in addition to dealing with postwar battle fatigue, must also face the fact that Kansas is white, racist and not altogether welcoming to a native Samoan. With no jobs, endless forms to fill out, and long lines to apply for treatment facilities that are hard to get into, despair sets in fast. Since Adam is a decent man with a reputation for being a take-charge kind of guy, it’s moving to watch him trying to bolster the flagging spirits of his buddies and hide the fat that he’s falling apart, too. By the time Solo turns to drugs and Will commits suicide, it is clear that even the strongest war survivors can take stoicism just so far before they crack.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE ★★★
While Adam’s scars wait to heal, Miles Teller invests the character with heartbreaking honesty and courage, finding nobility and strength in even the most harrowing moments of revelation. His scenes with Haley Bennett as the wife who suffers silently, wanting to help but not knowing what to do to mend his psychic wounds, are especially sensitive, and in the segment where he pays a visit to the widow of the friend who died by his side and tries to explain why he is tortured by guilt, Amy Schumer frees herself from the shackles of type casting and proves there is more to her talent than the loud and vulgar comedy roles her fans expect.
My only caveat is that in the final analysis, the filmmakers failed to resist the Hollywood temptation to turn it into a three-handkerchief weepie, but everything else about this film is frank, sincere and worthy of attention. You learn things from it that should be required viewing for the screening room at the Pentagon.