Jason Hall has been smart about how he’s played the game in Hollywood, and Thank You for Your Service is his reward for that. What he did with the opportunity he created is not what I would have expected, and I’ll be curious to see what audience, if any, shows up for this film.
Based on the ad campaign, which has leaned heavily on the fact that Hall was the screenwriter of American Sniper, I walked into the theater primed for something a little more obviously flag-waving. That’s not even a judgment of that type of film; obviously, studios have discovered that there is a chunk of the country that wants to see entertainment that underlines and celebrates the sacrifice of servicemen, and why not? We’ve been at war long enough now without interruption that we’re seeing families send their second generation into the same region. How we feel about that as a nation is not as simple as the title of this film might imply, and Hall’s film is actually a fairly scathing look at the human cost of that seemingly-endless conflict.
There is very little of the film that focuses on the actual time spent in Iraq by Will Wall (Joe Cole), Tausolo Aiete (Beulah Koale) and Adam Schumann (Miles Teller). Instead, the movie offers an even-handed, unflinching look at the day-to-day struggle they each face once they get home. Each man wrestles with different kinds of damage, but the film seems to work hard to avoid selling us an easy-to-digest portrait of PTSD. Instead, the movie tries to illustrate the full range of emotions these men must grapple with, from the joy of survival to the guilt attached to that survival. Adam seems to be the healthiest of them at first, and he’s got a beautiful, loving wife who wants to help him build his new life. Haley Bennett is very good as Saskia Schumann, and the frustrations she faces are completely understandable. Watching the way Adam pushes against the system and all of the little indignities that are built into even the simplest of tasks, you get a real sense of what it is that veterans face when they leave active service.
There is a danger in telling a story like this, because there are tropes that are already becoming overly familiar, and these are stories about very real human pain. You don’t want to reduce anyone to a cliche, but there are “types” that people fall into. Koale is very good as ‘Solo,’ who wants to go back to Iraq despite being told that he’s suffering from the after-effects of a major concussion. His memory loss and his hair-trigger anger are the most familiar face of PTSD so far in terms of drama, but the film does a nice job of layering in the specifics of his life with his wife Alea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) as they attempt to start a family. The stakes are high for him, but presented in a realistic way. Hall understands that it’s the smaller moments where we connect to these guys, and even when Solo finally snaps, Hall refuses turn him into “the angry guy.” My biggest storytelling complaint probably has to do with some timing issues in Solo’s story — having someone go into labor at the exact worst moment always bugs me in screenwriting — but those things don’t derail the movie.
My father served in Vietnam, and my entire life, he’s been a veteran. It’s never felt like he lets it define him, and to some extent, it has always remained the unknowable piece of who he is. There are physical things he carries with him to this day, but even at the height of pop culture’s obsession with Vietnam, he never really cared to share his memories of that time. That’s what makes it so hard for veterans who have been to war to ever fully settle in — who can they ever truly share those experiences with aside from the people who were there, and how can you ever truly move on from something that marks you so deeply?
Roman Vasyanov’s photography doesn’t fetishize blue-collar America, and it’s a tricky thing in a film like this. You’re reaching for realism, but that can easily look like condescension, and it can just as easily look like you’re trying to romanticize things. He’s been working like a beast lately, and it helps that he brings an outsider’s eye to things. He’s from the Soviet Union, born at the height of the Cold War, and that’s served him well in his collaborations with David Ayer on Fury, End of Watch and Suicide Squad, and his work on Doug Liman’s The Wall was driven entirely by geography, effectively making the audience feel pinned down in a wide-open space. He’s building an impressive filmography, and he’s a collaborator who seems to be as strong technically as he is artistically.
Likewise, Thomas Newman’s work here is important. A score in a film like this can easily lean to schmaltz, but Newman intentionally pulls it way back. Whatever emotional response you have here, it’s not because the score grabs you by the back of the neck and practically screams at you, and that came as a relief. In general, it feels like Hall understands how easy it would be to ladle everything on too thick, and just how big and powerful these emotions are without any adornment.
Ultimately, Thank You for Your Service is a near-impossible commercial prospect. It’s a no-nonsense look at the real faces of PTSD, and it offers no easy answers for its characters. Even as the film closes, there’s no gift-wrapped happy ending. It’s a film about this quiet subculture of people who have been marked by something, and who find the daily management of their trauma to be incredibly difficult, and it’s a tough, emotional sit. It doesn’t take an easy position on our relationship with our military, nor does it feel like it was made specifically to please that audience. However, there’s enough honesty in the approach that it makes me curious to see what else Jason Hall does as a writer-director, and for audiences who aren’t afraid to be bummed out, Thank You for Your Service has rewards to offer.
Running time: 108 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic