THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE Review: 6 out of 10 (Painful PTSD)
Post 9/11 war dramas have had varying degrees of success--from the underseen and excellent IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH to the box office smash of AMERICAN SNIPER. Some are red meat Republican porn like the awful 13 HOURS and others like THE MESSENGER are thoughtful and expressive. The latest into this foray is THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE--which encapsulates some of the above sentiments but doesn't really invest in any of them. Loosely based on the lives of Iraqi veterans and a non-fiction book by the same name, the film stars Miles Teller, Haley Bennett, Beulah Koale, Amy Schumer, and Scott Haze. It is written and directed by Jason Hall in his directorial debut.
The movie follows Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann (Teller) as a husband and soldier returning from the Iraq war. His friends Aieti, Waller, and Emory all were in his unit and have suffered serious emotional and physical trauma from the war. The film carries a non-narrative approach that just moves forward in time in a very indeterminate way. Scene to scene might be a day, or several weeks, and the film doesn't offer any visual or verbal clues to keep the audience tuned to the passing of time. This is a key, too, since it is important to know how long these veterans are suffering the weight of their anguish and wrestling with demons. Without much structure, the film focuses on the plight of PTSD and the effects it is having on these men and their families. And that depiction isn't subtle. Offering horrific flashbacks from the war, point-of-view hallucinations, and emotional outburts are just part of what the film displays. Maybe more horrific is the distant gazes and glazed looks from Specialist Aieti (Beulah Koale) who desperately wants to re-enlist despite how broken and shell-shocked he is. Amy Schumer is an odd casting here, not because she might want to try something dramatic, but because her role here is so small that it fails to offer much of a framework for us to see her in a different light. The star that shines here is Haley Bennett as Schumann's dutiful and strong wife Saskia. Her time on screen blazes with strength and fire and will as she supports her husband through his pain.
This is another remarkable performance from Teller, given what he has to work with. The film asks a lot of these actors to show how much stress and pain they are under, yet masking it for the civilians that surround them. The film isn't really a jingoistic pro America rally since it shows the damage that the military experience has on its soldiers, but it doesn't have a distinct anti-war tone either. The film points at issues like the failing VA and its attempt to provide benefits--but doesn't really double down with any form of commentary. It also has a few scenes of the military rebuffing PTSD with a male machismo, but doesn't capitalize on that either. What remains is just a painful view of suffering veterans that are helpless to the ravages of PTSD. The audience feels helpless too, and is submitted to watching the pain and anguish of these men as they spiral out of control. Though it might be an accurate depiction, the movie doesn't develop these characters much at all, keeping them as flat representations rather than fully realized people. Many times in the film I thought back to a far greater war film about PTSD--Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. That film offers a similar arc of soldiers returning from a war and struggling to re-integrate socially, relationally, and emotionally to civilian life. That film had characters that changed, developed, grew, and expressed themselves. In THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE, the film just puts broken men on display and points to the very obvious...that they are broken. And the movie points to that a lot. And though there might be a message to be had there, it isn't as strong as one might hope.