We all know post-traumatic stress disorder is a major problem, and while it’s only recently become a national concern, we’re also keenly aware PTSD has been around as long as the act of war itself. In his directorial debut, “Thank You for Your Service,” screenwriter Jason Hall graces us with a tale of soldiers returning from Iraq and the difficultly they endure as they attempt to resume their previous lives. It is a timely story, and though I don’t know I learned anything about PTSD I didn’t know (or couldn’t have imagined), I was very impressed with the individual personalities and the quality acting.
Miles Teller (in his best performance since “Whiplash”) plays Sergeant Adam Schumann, the protagonist and (at least initially) the least interesting of the returning veterans. Adam is the proverbial “nice guy,” although more introspective than your typical Tom Hanks character. He successfully represses the impact of his wartime experiences from everyone – even from his loving, supportive, and inquisitive wife Saskia (an understated but powerful Haley Bennett, in the best performance of her young career). But as time progresses, Adam’s inability to find work and his temperamental outbursts manifest his seeking counseling. In an accurate nod to modern-day society, Saskia doesn’t have to do much prodding; Adam knows he needs help.
Also seeking help at the local veterans’ hospital is a former squadron mate of Adam’s, Tausolo Aieti, an American Samoan soldier played by newcomer Beulah Koale. In a career-defining display of talent, Koale is so believable as the most ill-adjusted of the “Thank You for Your Service” crew I actually thought he was a soldier and not an actor. His performance seems like it’s right out of a PTSD documentary. Unlike Adam, Tausolo has every intention of returning to combat, but he has trouble with remembering details, and he has a tendency to let his guard down too easily – such as when he inadvertently becomes a cog in a drug deal at the behest of a Desert Storm vet he meets at a veterans party.
There are other peripheral characters, including Will Waller (played by English actor Joe Cole), who returns to the apartment he shared with his fiancée only to find it abandoned. And Michael Emory (Scott Haze) who has endured the most horrifying combat of the group’s members, yet (at least outwardly) appears the most well-adjusted. In a rare dramatic turn, Amy Schumer plays Amanda Doster, the wife of a soldier killed in Iraq. She maintains a close relationship with Adam and Saskia, as she seeks answers regarding her husband’s demise.
It’s a strong cast, particularly Teller and Koale, and the screenplay (also by Jason Hall) veers far enough from the expected to hold our interest. Fortunately, Hall doesn’t fall into the trap of painting any of his warriors with such a broad stroke as to make them over-the-top revenge seekers, a la Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver.” No, these men are regular all-American guys – the kind you might run into at a corner bar. They’ve served their country and now they expect their country to respond in kind.
And therein lay the point of “Thank You for Your Service.” The title comes from an unintentionally condescending line so common in today’s parlance as to render itself essentially meaningless, the way “Have a Nice Day” did thirty years ago. The implication is that we pat our veterans on the back, trot them out at sporting events, and then return them to the underbelly of society. We (society) know our all-volunteer army attracts those least financially, mentally, and societally able to succeed in white-collar civilization. We know each likely harbors a certain degree of PTSD. We know our veterans’ hospitals are backlogged for months. And we continue to elect political leaders who promise to cut our taxes rather than doing something about our veterans.
To its credit, Hall’s screenplay wisely steers clear of any sweeping political statements. But it is hard-hitting enough to grab us by our proverbial collars, shake us a little, and force us to recognize PTSD is every bit as horrifying and widespread as we imagined. It is reminiscent of one of the greatest Hollywood achievements ever, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” William Wyler’s Oscar-winning masterpiece about three WWII soldiers re-adapting to society. Fredric March’s character has developed a dependency on alcohol, Dana Andrews has trouble reuniting with his fiancée. And Harold Russell has lost both his arms in combat. It was a somber look at PTSD, long before that term had been coined.
Today we’re all acutely aware of the difficulty soldiers have re-integrating. “The Best Years of Our Lives” serves as a precursor of sorts to “Thank You for Your Service.” Because of this awareness, “Thank You for Your Service” is less shocking than “Best Years” was in 1946. But it is probably the more compelling of the two pictures. “Thank You for Your Service” grips you about halfway through, as you realize you’re watching a very good film.