By Luke Parker, Columnist
Jason Hall’s “Thank You for Your Service” proves that war-themed films need not focus on combat to be effective. Based on David Finkel’s acclaimed 2013 nonfiction book of the same name, this harrowing drama shines a light on the inescapable mental hell so many veterans of our armed forces face every day. Considering the fact that there seems to be no end in sight to the country’s involvement in the Middle East, the film feels irrefutably apt.
The picture marks the directorial debut of Hall, whose abilities to brilliantly inscribe and portray the emotional afflictions of the modern soldier were on full display in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” He has whittled the book’s discussion of soldiers from the 2-16 Infantry Battalion down to the lives of three, all of whom are connected and bonded by combat experiences, the details of which are entirely and expertly hidden behind shell-shocked dialogue until the very end of the film.
There’s Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), a selfless Sergeant whose self-destructing tendency to prioritize the building troubles of others before his own makes him some sort of G.I. George Bailey; Tausolo “Solo” Aieti (Beulah Koale), an American Samoan suffering the effects of a brain injury; and Will Waller (Joe Cole), who returns home to find that his wife has left him and taken their daughter with her. They have each entered a new kind of battle.
It does not take long for this battle to commence. Upon arriving at the airport, even before he gets a chance to see his wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), Adam is confronted by Amanda Doster (Amy Schumer), the widow of a fellow soldier, who begs him for the details of her husband’s death. He tells her that he wasn’t there when it happened, but the pained and tired look in his eyes signifies that there is much more to the story.
And there is. And it is the story Hall masterfully withholds from us. Among the many wartime incidents suggested to be haunting Adam, only one is depicted early in the film in which he desperately tries to help a fellow soldier, Emory (Scott Haze), who has been shot in the head by a sniper. Adam attempts to carry Emory down the many flights of steps, only to drop him when he begins choking on the blood gushing from the wound. None, for their own reasons, are completely spared of guilt.
Though the combat itself is scarcely on the screen, its presence can be felt in any shot Teller is in. With every movement, the 30-year-old actor, whose impressive trend of successful dramatic roles which spans back to “Whiplash” continues, drags the emotional turmoil of a thousand men, making Schumann a living martyr of a broken system.
However, “Thank You for Your Service” does not denigrate the military – that is, with the exception of one encounter between Adam and an ignorant colonel who is completely oblivious to the prominent emotional pain the man standing in front of him is experiencing.
The people working at the VA facility, including a therapist who takes time from her lunch to meet with Solo, are depicted as caring and good-hearted. As Adam and Solo sit in a waiting room amongst hundreds of other veterans from all eras of the army, it is obvious that these workers are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems before them.
The first-time director does an impressive job covering these problems himself, though subtlety is not necessarily his specialty. One sequence, in which a war-based video game triggers a breakdown from one of the men, feels out of place in its aggression, and another which sees Solo tend to a wounded fighting dog nearly screams symbolism. Hall’s tedious tendency to hold our hands through his rather palpable outlook can be felt until the very end, with a Bruce Springsteen song that hits the mark all too well.
However, the overall emotions, which are rooted in the PTSD-infested minds of our returned American heroes, are genuine enough to overpass this minor misstep of direction. The movie is not merely about the horror of wars – it simply tells us that when you go to the hell of war to fight, you will never stop fighting – and after experiencing it, a new appreciation is found for the bravery and agony endured by all of our veterans, not just the ones that come home in bandages.