THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE (2017)
Director: Jason Hall
Cast: Miles Teller, Beulah Koale, Haley Bennett, Joe Cole, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Amy Schumer, Scott Haze, Omar J. Dorsey, Brad Beyer, Kate Lyn Sheil, Allison King
MPAA Rating: (for strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material and brief nudity)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 10/27/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 26, 2017
Shortly after returning from Iraq, one soldier, as his final statement, asks, "Where do I go?" Another says, "I don't belong here." That's the echoing sentiment of Thank You for Your Service, a sympathetic but tough look at how men who are willing to fight for their country are welcomed home by unfulfilled promises. These are men who have seen multiple tours of duty, and they return physically and psychologically scarred with few answers, either because no one really knows how to talk to them about their experiences in battle or because the people who could help are too busy with the hundreds of thousands of other veterans who need aid.
Writer/director Jason Hall's film (his directorial debut) is a low-key, perceptive drama. It's not about heroics in combat, because the film's characters don't believe that there is such a thing. They simply survived, and they did that simply on account of circumstances or happenstance. Others weren't so lucky. If these men are able to come home alive and physically intact, it's only because a sniper targeted the closer of the two tallest soldiers standing on a building or because another solider thought that his buddy, after a particularly rough day, could use a call home in his place.
The burden of survival is as difficult as the burden of readjusting to civilian life, and even these characters—who, in Iraq, drove jeeps toward hidden IEDs or were responsible for the lives of an entire caravan based on their ability to spot those explosives while on the move—find it difficult to vocalize that thought. Living shouldn't be a burden, especially when they know that, on a daily basis, they were only a single decision or a split second away from dying. For them, though, it is. How does a person reconcile that—being grateful for being alive but believing that someone else, who also should be alive, had to pay the ultimate price for it?
The film doesn't have any answers, except that this is a problem—with the best known studies showing that 22 veterans per day commit suicide (a statistic that's inserted into dialogue here, just so we understand the scope)—and that whatever we're doing as a country isn't nearly enough. That's the tough side of the film, which sees the sentiment of its title (appropriately, never spoken here) as a hollow one—a virtuous statement that means nothing from people who aren't willing to listen or to do anything about the reality of the problem. The sympathetic side is in treating its characters as people who want to go back to their ordinary lives, realize that they need help, and want to protect the people they love from the encroaching reality that an ordinary life seems impossible, because help seems unlikely to ever come to them.
The main characters begin as a trio: Adam (Miles Teller), Solo (Beulah Koale), and Will (Joe Cole). The first two are married—Adam to Saskia (Haley Bennett) with two kids, including a baby son, and Solo to Alea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who's expecting their first child shortly after her husband's return. Joe is engaged but returns home to find his apartment empty, save for his footlocker, his dress uniform, and a lamp. His fiancée won't answer his phone calls, and by the end of the first act, only Adam and Solo remain.
This begins a series of selective silences and frank conversations, all of them pointing to the fact that neither Adam, who feels responsible for the severe injury of one comrade and the death of another, nor Solo, who suffered substantial brain trauma after an IED attack, is prepared for the trauma and guilt of life after combat. "Let it go," Adam tells Solo, after the latter brings up the fallen soldier, whom Solo forgot in the jeep because of his now-frequent memory loss. Solo's reply is to the point: "Did they teach you that in basic training?"
Hall's screenplay (based on David Finkel's book) doesn't condemn any single or collective group, although it certainly points a few fingers. One is squarely aimed at the Department of Veterans Affairs, with Adam and Solo sitting for hours in the waiting room of a local branch, only to learn that they don't have a required ID card. After waiting another morning, they discover that there's a backlog: It could take six to nine months before either of them is able to see a physician and a psychiatrist.
Another finger is pointed at certain segments of the military brass. Adam's commanding officer spots him at the VA and passive-aggressively scolds him for seeking help. It looks bad for the men who might look up to Adam—bad for morale and bad for "Big Army" ("He didn't have to kick down doors," Adam later points out; "He fought his war behind a computer screen"). Another Army bureaucrat sits behind his desk, shopping for steaks online. He's more concerned about Solo's U.S. citizenship than with the fact that the young man's brains are, as he himself puts it, "scrambled."
Most of the film, though, is about these characters trying to cope, with little aid and while remaining silent about their pain to the people closest to them. The performances are strong, especially from Teller, as a man who finds it increasingly difficult to be the strong and silent type, and from Koale, as a man who can barely hide the agony of being unable to remember important details. Although there's a bit too much contrivance in the third act (with Solo becoming involved in the criminal underworld), Thank You for Your Service primarily keeps the focus on these characters as they face the hidden wounds of war.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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