The men and women who survive war and live to come home have had experiences a million miles removed from most of us. That’s why we’ve often depended on the movies to bring those traumas close. Yet the drama of the returning soldier has generated an image of the veteran that’s just cliché enough to be suspect. More often than not, he’s depicted as a bottled-up, implosive figure punching the walls, drowning his pain in liquor and drugs, trapped in flashbacks of combat too “unreal” to be understood, or absorbed, by normal life. He’s an icon of neglected numbness and existential meltdown.
All of which makes “Thank You for Your Service” an engrossing eye-opener. The movie, adapted from the 2013 nonfiction book by David Finkel, follows several members of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion after they return home from Baghdad in 2008. What happens to them conforms to some of the basic tropes of the veteran experience (yes, there’s a wall-punching scene). But most of it is avid and surprising, and honestly moving, because the film refuses to hype what it shows you.
It pays the ultimate tribute to these men by sticking true to the daily flow of their experience: the hope interlaced with despair, the boxed-in feelings, the coming to grips with an America where military service is extolled but no longer rewarded. (The soldiers are treated as society’s discards.) The most powerful aspect of the movie is that, in its plainspoken and affecting way, it demystifies the agonies of post-traumatic stress disorder. It understands PTSD not as some sort of blankly ravaged emotional shutdown but as the most healthy response possible to the violence that war commits.
“Thank You for Your Service” was written and directed by Jason Hall, making his debut as a director after having written the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” I didn’t like anything about that film — its “rousingly” inauthentic gung-ho bombast, its apologia for the whole reason we ever got into the Iraq War in the first place (Eastwood, with his deep distrust of institutional corruption, should have known better than to buy into the Bush-Cheney boilerplate propaganda). But Hall, working with less blatantly charged material, turns out to be a natural-born humanist filmmaker. In “Thank You for Your Service,” he tells a quietly commanding and fine-grained story that dramatizes the plight of U.S. veterans from the inside out.
The characters have all served together, riding in a Humvee through Baghdad, where their precarious day-to-day existence was finally blown up. Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), their sergeant, emerged with the least damage. He’s a soldier who found purpose in war, and after three tours of duty he returns to his wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), and their young daughter and infant son, in Topeka. Hard times have forced them to rent out their house and move into a run-down place on the scuzzier side of town, but Adam is grateful to be alive. “I’m here,” he says with a grin. “I got all my limbs…It’s perfect.”
But it’s not perfect. There’s tension in the marriage as soon as Adam says that he wants to go back to his job as a golf-course greensman. (“It’s a kid’s job,” says Saskia. “You were just in charge of a dozen men.”) Then there’s the combat episode that haunts him. We see it early on: His comrade, Michael Emory (Scott Haze), gets shot in the head, and as Adam is frantically trying to carry him down a flight of stairs, dripping with the wounded man’s blood, he drops him on his head. Not exactly a case of friendly fire (and Emory, in fact, survived), but it’s an incident that illustrates one of the most lacerating demons of war: the way that most of the soldiers are carrying toxic levels of guilt.
If you fight for long enough, you will fail to save somebody, or you will drop somebody, or you will in some way mess up; the chaos of war guarantees it. “Thank You for Your Service” posits this devastating fact as one of the driving dynamics of PTSD. You will not do enough. That’s why soldiers — unlike, say, the media — recognize the idea of the war “hero” as the civilian contrivance it is. In war, everyone is a hero, and no one is a hero. And that reality acts like a machine to create torment. The inferno of war isn’t just that limbs will be blown off, but that you will somehow fail your brothers.
Adam knows that he’s failed his — and on a level he can’t comprehend, so does Tausolo “Solo” Aiete (Beulah Koale), an American Somoan soldier who’s desperate to be drafted into another tour of duty, because the Army is the most solid place he’s ever known. Many films have portrayed characters who are war junkies, but rarely has there been one as vulnerable as Solo.
The New Zealand-born Koale has a thick build and a stare of terrified nobility, his lips curling with neurotic self-doubt. Solo’s memory is shot (he can barely remember that it’s Wednesday), but that’s because, on some level, he needs to blot everything out. He’s the film’s resident druggie, but the ones he’s on are pharmaceutical — a soul-numbing cocktail of daze-inducers like Klonopin — and the look on Beulah Koale’s face is the most poetic thing in “Thank You for Your Service.” He’s a heartfelt warrior with a piece missing. Their other comrade, Will Wall (Joe Cole), is an angry loose cannon who comes home to discover that his fiancée has ditched him. He goes from the cauldron of battle to having nothing at all, becoming war’s sacrificial lamb.
Yet it’s Miles Teller’s film. Looking like a scarred and bulked-up Elvis, he gives a physically forceful performance of many colors, playing a man of loyal, pleasure-loving valor who knows that he’s been blessed, but who can’t stop letting what happened over there trip him into despair. The camaraderie of these actors is rough, crazy, convincing. (It makes the interplay among the aging Vietnam veterans of Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” sound like a Neil Simon play.) For once, you don’t feel like you’re watching actors portraying soldiers; they’re neither too macho nor too soft — they have just the right obscene bellicosity, baptized in hormones.
Adam and Solo head down to the Department of Veterans Affairs, where they learn that they’ll be eligible for physician and psychiatric visits…in six to nine months. If they want to spend time in a recovery clinic, they’ll have to go halfway across the country. A lesser film would have made a demagogic anti-government point out of all this. But “Thank You for Your Service,” despite its slightly incongruous sarcastic title, accepts the over-leveraged condition of veterans’ benefits as, simply, the sad state of the system. It argues, implicitly, for a better way, but its real intent it to bring the news about what our bureaucratic betrayal of veterans is doing to the heart of the country.
The plight of an Iraq War veteran, as the movie portrays is, isn’t any one thing. It’s inadequate counseling, it’s being misunderstood by your spouse (mostly because you can’t tell her what’s going on), it’s having no career track after the military, it’s the fact that people look at you like you’re a slightly exotic zoo creature. But Adam, at least, has the instinct to heal. He drives down to Arkansas to visit Emory, who turns out to be a real shit-kicker, broken but unbowed. As for Solo, all he wants is some Ecstasy pills to set his head straight (he’s not looking for a high — he’s heard that Ecstasy can cut through his haze), and he winds up risking too much to get them. (Omar J. Dorsey, as the drug dealer he connects with, insinuates the intensity of his presence in every line.)
No film drama can make us “know” PTSD, but by the end of “Thank You for Your Service,” you feel as if the agony, and bravery, of our soldiers has become less remote and more tangible. Hall’s filmmaking is crisp, assured, and, at times, quietly audacious. He casts Amy Schumer, in limp brown hair and a washed-out no-makeup look, as a war widow, and damned if she doesn’t disappear — touchingly — inside the role. The movie isn’t about some unspeakable horror of war that’s too excruciating to make sense of in “the real world.” It’s about how the hell of war remains all too real, to the point that you wouldn’t be sane if you didn’t take it home with you.