Miles Teller and Beulah Koale star as soldiers picking up the pieces of their lives
The Iraq War has long puzzled Hollywood. Even The Hurt Locker, which won the best picture Oscar over James Cameron’s Avatar, failed to make a big dent at the box office or really capture the cultural zeitgeist the way that so many Vietnam films did. Thank You For Your Service takes a slightly different approach to the Iraq experience. Instead of tackling the conflict itself (which does appear briefly in bookend scenes), the directorial debut of American Sniper writer Jason Hall examines the psychological wreckage left behind on the war’s veterans.
Miles Teller stars as Sgt. Adam Schumann, who comes home to his wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett) and their young children with a heaping helping of guilt — not just because he missed the birth of their baby son and the renting of their house, but also because he feels responsible for injuries that befell the soldiers under his command. Teller runs hot and cold as an actor, but he’s well-suited to this role. Adam was clearly raised to believe that stoic cowboy masculinity was the answer to everything, but as the film goes on and he’s forced to confront the truth of his war experience, more and more pain starts to emerge beneath the surface. Teller’s boyish looks come in handy as well. It soon becomes apparent that in many ways Adam is still just a boy in man’s clothes, unable to fully process the trauma he’s experienced.
He’s not alone in that. His friend Tausolo “Solo” Aieti (Beulah Koale) often talks about how “the army saved my life,” but it came at a terrible cost. Solo has been in the vicinity of a few too many explosions, and now he has a hard time even remembering what day it is. As a result, he not only can’t return to the army, where he at least found purpose and camaraderie, he also has a hell of a time adjusting to civilian life. His worst memories come back at random times, sometimes leading to dangerous violent outbursts that land him in bad situations.
For the most part, Iraq veterans were not greeted with the kind of jeers and condemnations that often accompanied returns from the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, Adam and Solo get an immediate brace of cold water when they first land back in the States, with Amanda Doster (Amy Schumer) confronting them and demanding to know how her husband died. Credit to Hall, who also wrote the film’s screenplay from the non-fiction book of the same name by David Finkel, for brilliantly rolling out the mystery of James Doster’s (Brad Beyer) death over the course of the film — suffice to say the truth of the tragedy hits hard, since it played right into both Adam and Solo’s greatest weaknesses. Schumer isn’t in the movie long enough to get a sense of her range as a dramatic actor, but she does have a good scene with Teller towards the end, where she tells him that the best way to honor the fallen is to “live,” and build a fulfilling life for himself and his family.
That’s a helpful message, especially since Adam and other veterans aren’t getting it anywhere else. For one thing, the Department of Veteran Affairs is over-taxed and can only offer months-long wait times to the many veterans desperately seeking help, even as some die by suicide — the government asked these men to go fight a war, and then left them to fend for themselves after they finished. For another thing, the Bush administration sold the Iraq War as a way of bringing democracy and free-market values to the people of the Middle East. That worked out terribly for Iraqis, but it’s not very helpful for Americans either. In one wrenching scene, Solo sits before a superior officer, desperate for his help in clearing up a bureaucratic hurdle that the VA is using to deny him much-needed benefits. The other man, however, seems barely aware of Solo and his plight; he’s mostly concerned with buying beef online. It’s reminiscent of the most memorable scene from The Hurt Locker, where expert bomb-defuser Jeremy Renner returns home only to find himself totally befuddled by the sheer number of cereal options at the supermarket. The American values these troops were supposedly fighting for (commercialism, the free market) prove totally inadequate at supporting them when they need it. There are other American values, however — solidarity, humility, looking out for one another — and those do help ease the pain a little, as Adam finds out when he visits a wounded friend in one of the film’s most affecting sequences. This is why Thank You For Service is so successful at capturing the Iraq War’s effects on American lives. The Vietnam experience was about soldiers bonding together in the jungle and committing unspeakable acts against the local population for reasons they never quite understood, as captured by films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. Iraq, for its part, was a colossal failure on every level, a grand failure of bureaucratic planning and terrorism-induced paranoia that ruined millions of lives.
One final note is worth making, since treatment of veterans has been in the national news so much recently following President Donald Trump’s alleged rude treatment of a war widow. Amidst the storm of Trump’s ongoing controversies, some commentators have ventured that President George W. Bush actually looks pretty great by comparison. Never mind how much The Daily Show and other liberal commentators used to mock Bush; a poll this week found that even a majority of Democrats now have favorable views of the former president. Well, anyone who finds themselves thinking that should dunk their head in Thank You For Your Service and spend a few hours ruminating on a mere fraction of the lives devastated by Bush’s disastrous war.