Thank You for Your Service (Jason Hall, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars.
Thank You for Your Service marks the directorial debut of actor/screenwriter Jason Hall (American Sniper), and it makes for an auspicious start. Based on the 2013 nonfiction book of the same name by journalist David Finkel, the film tackles the twin – and twinned – issues of PTSD and neglect of our returning veterans. With actors Miles Teller (Whiplash), Beulah Koale (One Thousand Ropes) and Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) headlining a stellar cast (which includes, in a supporting role, comedienne Amy Schumer, Trainwreck, good but decidedly unfunny), Thank You For Your Service is a hard-hitting exposé of how little we care about our troops once they’re home from battle. Be a man, stand proud and shut up about your trauma.
At first it starts as a seemingly jingoistic exercise. Teller plays Sergeant Schumann – “Shu” to his men – and when we first meet him he is on a raid in Iraq where a fellow soldier is shot in the head. Carrying the wounded man down a long flight of stairs, Schumann trips, dropping him. We assume the worst, and next see our hero outside on the street, covered in blood, coughing and pouring water on himself to wash it off, clearly distressed. Soon he and his platoon are on their way back to the States, and we learn from their casual banter how long each has served (multiple tours) and whether they plan to go back, once home. Besides Schumann, there’s Solo (Koale) – originally from American Samoa, who is proud of how the U.S. Army has improved his life – and Waller (Joe Cole, Woodshock), who talks of nothing but his upcoming marriage. They avoid serious issues, instead all bluster and bonhomie.
When they land, each goes off to his life, Schumann greeted by wife Saskia and their two young kids. The happy reunion is somewhat marred when Schumann is confronted by the widow (Schumer) of a dead officer, wanting to know how he died, a question Schumann cannot answer. Still, it’s good to be back, though Schumann and his fellow vets are troubled by nightmares that won’t go away; they cope with drugs and alcohol. We’ve certainly seen this kind of story before, but what makes the film special is its initial emotional restraint and almost procedural examination of the bureaucratic obstacles to psychological treatment.
Hall, who also wrote the script, takes his time setting up characters and situations, allowing his actors room to create meaningful relationships that earn dramatic payoffs. Though the women play supporting roles, they are given their chance to shine, as well, and Bennett is easily Teller’s on-screen equal. Both pro-service and anti-hypocrisy, the film asks the audience to consider the price of our indifference. In the final act, it loses some of its subtleties and descends into expositional dialogue, but in the first two thirds it masks its harsh polemics through carefully constructed plotting. Imperfect though it becomes, it packs a mean one-two punch against the system until then.