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 The War Hits Home 

Miles Teller
Miles Teller
Universal Pictures
 109 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Jason Hall
Starring: Miles Teller, Haley Bennett 
Thank You for Your Serivce

While there have been hundreds of great war movies over the years and an impressive number of great antiwar movies, you can count the number of great postwar movies on the fingers of one hand and still have some room left over. Americans love depictions of our troops at war, but, in a case of art imitating life, for the most part they don’t want to be reminded of what happens after those troops come home. The latest example of this benign indifference is Thank You for Your Service, a well-made, occasionally harrowing movie that’s already a casualty of the box office wars.


Thank You for Your Service is based on a book of the same name by journalist David Finkel that details the lives of the soldiers in one infantry battalion that fought in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. Finkel had previously written about the unit’s combat experiences and, in Thank You for Your Service, he followed the troops home (many of them lived near Ft. Riley, KS) and described the difficulties some of them encountered in adjusting to civilian life. Rather than focus on the big picture, Finkel deliberately chose the small picture, describing how a handful of soldiers tried to cope with mental issues and an inefficient bureaucratic veterans medical establishment.


Screenwriter/director Jason Hall (who got an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of American Sniper) adopts pretty much the same approach, focusing on three pals, starting with their return home, each soon to encounter major problems in adjusting. Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) is seemingly in the best shape, as he wants to reconnect with his wife (Haley Bennett) and daughter, but Schumann bears tremendous guilt for events that took place in Iraq. Schumann feels that, because of his actions, one of his fellow squad members, Michael Emory (Scott Haze), suffered permanent brain damage and another, James Doster (Brad Beyer), was killed.


Schumann’s closest friend, Solo Aieti (Beulah Koale) suffered head injuries in Iraq as well and is now prone to sudden mood swings, memory loss and violent rages. The Army won’t let him return to Iraq, and, to relieve his pain, he tries to purchase street drugs and winds up getting involved with some dangerous drug dealers. The third soldier, Billy Waller (Joe Cole) is, in many ways, the saddest case of all. Throughout his tour of duty, he used the thought of returning home to a loving fiancée as a mantra to get him through the tough times. When he returns, however, he finds out that she has moved out, taking all the furniture from their home and clearing out their bank accounts as well. Waller’s reaction when he eventually confronts her is the most gut wrenching moment in the entire film.


The main point that Hall makes, like author Finkel before him, is that, although these three soldiers have left the war behind, the war hasn’t left them. Hall illustrates that by including bits and pieces of their tour in Iraq, much of it harrowing combat footage. The movie begins with the sequence that shows how Emory suffered his injuries and why Adam blames himself. Later, both Adam and Solo have occasional imperfect flashbacks until finally, late in the movie, the entire picture emerges. The technique is a bit confusing at first, but deliberately so; Hall wants viewers to experience the fragmentary reality that his characters face.


One thing that’s made crystal clear in the film is just how little help Adam and Solo are able to get from the military itself for their conditions. In one of the more depressing scenes in the movie, they sit for hours in a crowded waiting room with other crippled veterans, only to be told when they finally get to see a counselor that they can’t actually get any help (see the clip below). To make matters worse, as Adam is leaving, he is berated by his former unit commander for showing weakness by attempting to get help. Adam and Solo’s experience, multiplied hundreds of times, epitomizes the way that the Veterans Administration and the military failed those who did not return from the war whole, either mentally or physically.


Although Thank You for Your Service is based on Finkel’s thoroughly researched and documented book, the movie takes some liberties in the stories of Adam and Solo to make their stories conform more closely to Hollywood norms. In my view, that was a mistake, especially the interlude involving Solo and the drug dealers, a sequence that seems cribbed from any of today’s urban police dramas. What these troops, and the thousands others like them, go through is dramatic enough without the need to turn it into a run-of-the-mill crime story. Similarly, Adam’s story leads to a less physically dangerous but equally gripping resolution when he finally works up the courage to talk about what actually happened with Doster’s widow (an almost unrecognizable Amy Schumer).


Although director Hall has powerful material to work with, the main reason that Thank You for Your Service is so effective is the acting. Miles Teller does another solid job playing a man with a lot of pent up frustrations that he tries to hide behind a veneer of pleasantness. Credit should also go to Amy Schumer in perhaps her first genuine dramatic role. It’s a small part but one that could easily have become a cliché. The real acting find in the movie, however, is Beulah Koale, a relative newcomer. He has the showiest role, to be sure, but his screen presence is overwhelming as he portrays a man on the edge, with mental issues threatening the gentler inner man.


Thank You for Your Service is a serviceable movie, but its truly powerful moments are relatively few. It should still come as a wakeup call for a nation that all too often treats returning soldiers as props to be taken out occasionally on holidays but otherwise kept out of sight. Combat conditions in the Iraq War, as director Hall demonstrates, were unlike anything our soldiers had encountered in previous wars and left their marks on many, few of whom received adequate mental care. Occasional over-dramatizations aside, Thank You for Your Service does those troops a real service in portraying their travails, both in Iraq and at home.

In this clip, Miles Teller encounters bureaucratic delays at the Veterans Administration office.

Read other reviews of Thank You for Your Service: 

Thank You for Your Service (2017) on IMDb