There’s certainly never been a shortage of war movies at the local cineplex. This year alone we’ve had Dunkirk, The Zookeeper’s Wife, also-rans The Wall and Megan Leavey, and the Netflix hit War Machine, among others. Few, if any, though, have ever given us the story of what it’s like for soldiers returning home from war and, more importantly, done it well; the list pretty much begins and ends with 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, 1978’s Coming Home, and 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. (I think we can all agree to pretend that last year’s disastrous Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk never happened.)
That list, however, is now one film longer, with the addition of Jason Hall’s Thank You For Your Service, based on the nonfiction book by Pulitzer-winning journalist David Finkel.
The story of three soldiers returning home from an eleven-month deployment in Iraq in 2007, Service doesn’t sugar-coat, sanitize, or in any way dilute the tremendous challenges veterans face, both physically and mentally, once the fighting stops. It’s a tough movie, to be sure—one that isn’t easy to digest, nor should it be.
Miles Teller, starring in his second biopic in as many weeks, plays Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, who rode shotgun in a patrol humvee and kept an eye out for roadside bombs. He’s haunted by two specific events during his deployment, one of which left a soldier seriously injured and another that resulted in a buddy’s death. Now that he’s home, he’s finding it damn near impossible to adjust to a quiet life with wife Saskia (Haley Bennett) and their two young kids; along with not knowing his daughter doesn’t like chocolate, he can’t find a job, can’t sleep (“It’s already 4pm in Baghdad,” he reminds Saskia early one morning), and he’s also feeling a sense of responsibility to two battalion-mates grappling with many of the same issues.
From the inefficiency of the VA system all the way through to the tragedy of suicide, there’s very little Service doesn’t tackle. And tackle well. The facetious (if not outright sarcastic) nature of the title becomes readily apparent the more the film progresses, as the woeful treatment of veterans becomes more and more frustrating.
Hall, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2014 for his adapted screenplay of American Sniper, makes his directorial debut with Service, and the result is a heartbreaking, riveting success. He remains content to wisely keep the film small and no-frills. And it holds onto its intimate feel, without ever breaking focus from these three vulnerable men in rural Kansas, as it simply (and deeply) shines the light on a significant national problem. Even with a few plot points not getting the resolution they need or deserve, the overall impact isn’t dulled.
Teller and Bennett lead the way with raw, emotional performances, and they’re supported by a largely unknown (though no less brilliant) cast, including New Zealander Beulah Koale as Schumann’s fellow soldier Specialist Aieti. Amy Schumer even hops on board for a quick, dramatic cameo as a widowed wife.
It’s may not be a fun watch or a frivolous night at the movies, but Thank You for Your Service gets the job done, reminding us that a soldier’s struggles don’t end when he steps away from the battlefield.