“Thank You for Your Service” begins on an Iraqi rooftop, where a young American soldier named Michael Adam Emory (Scott Haze) is shot in the head by a distant sniper. But the key moment of the sequence doesn’t come until a few seconds later, as Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) slings his severely wounded comrade over his shoulder and races him down a sandy flight of stairs. It would be hard — almost superhuman — for Schumann to negotiate the descent even without Emory’s blood streaming into his eyes and the foundation quaking from the firefight outside. So he drops him. Not on purpose, of course, but there are some weights that men aren’t meant to carry. And when Schumann returns to his wife and kids in Kansas, it’s Emory who haunts him the most — not the guys who died, but the guy he dropped.
That acute, pervasive sense of personal responsibility is part of what separates Jason Hall’s “Thank You for Your Service” from so many of the other recent stories about the after-war (including “American Sniper,” which Hall scripted for the screen). True and trite in almost equal measure, this is a very clunky movie, rife with the sort of contrivances that genre classics like “The Deer Hunter,” “The Best Days of Our Lives” and even the profoundly demented “Jacob’s Ladder” rise well above.
But Hall’s directorial debut, adapted from David Finkel’s non-fiction book of the same name, hums with a furious helplessness that’s been missing from so many of the narrative films about soldiers returning from Iraq (or Afghanistan, for that matter). There’s a raw honesty here that could have benefited from a surer hand, and yet it almost doesn’t matter that Hall lacks the tools to mend the rotted bridges that isolate veterans from their home country, because at least he understands the sheer depth of those gaps, and how desperately our soldiers need us to meet them half way.
Kicking that traumatic prologue into the rear view, “Thank You for Your Service” makes the jarring transition back to civilian life, following three soldiers as they try to pick up where they left off. Schumann is the most outwardly functional of the trio, and therefore becomes our de facto protagonist. Teller, who’s always thrived in the middle register of his characters’ lives, is well-cast as a man who’s desperately trying to stay there. His most affecting scenes are the ones in which Schumann is trying to will his world back together, taking the little things in stride (he no longer knows what his daughter likes on her pancakes) and downplaying the degree to which he’s aged as well. When Schumann goes looking for a minimum-wage job, his wife (Hayley Bennett, stirring with tenacity of her own) reminds him that he oversaw 30 men in Iraq; he can’t pretend he’s still the same guy he was before he left.
Newcomer Beulah Koale is similarly affecting as Tausolo Aieti, a deeply undone American Samoan soldier who “owes his life” to his adoptive country. In a film about psychologically shattered veterans who envy the people whose physical injuries call attention to (and confirm) their pain, “Solo” is so obviously broken that the warbling look in his eyes might as well be a missing leg. His PTSD is particularly aggressive, and it messes with his memory to the point where he might as well be suffering from dementia. It’s like he’s been hollowed out, and the void where his soul used to be is a breeding ground for bad thoughts.
That leaves Solo’s pregnant wife (“Whale Rider” star Keisha Castle-Hughes) on the outside looking in. “Thank You for Your Service” frequently indicates at the relationship between combat service and domestic abuse, but none of its storylines give the women their own time to grapple with that nightmare. In Iraq, a whole platoon of people had Solo’s back — in Kansas, the girlfriends and wives of these soldiers are often single-handedly tasked with providing that support. The weight of that burden is especially clear when it comes to Will Waller (Joe Cole), who arrives home to find an empty house. Not only is his bed missing, his bed is gone.
Hall very obviously comes from a place of love and concern, and his film is lucidly detailed about diagnosing the tribulations of returning from our modern wars. Its most powerful moments broach on docudrama territory. When Schumann and Solo drop by the VA hospital, the camera goes wide to find a waiting room that’s overflowing with veterans (some of whom will be told that they have to wait nine months for a psychological evaluation). When Schumann visits Emory, there’s a delicate beat where the Sergeant helps his paraplegic soldier into a brace that he can’t put on by himself. The war is fought together, but the after-war is every man for himself.
Without wagging his finger, Hall rages at the institutional failures at work, the fact that we only support the troops until the second they come home. His heartsick anger is lucid enough to survive his screenwriting, which tries to make these stories cinematic but only winds up miring them in clichés. Solo in particular is the victim of a painfully unbelievable third act, which expands a legitimate situation into a crime saga that feels like it was ripped from a bad network TV show. Elsewhere, Amy Schumer is badly miscast as a war widow looking for answers; it’s hard to tell if she lacks dramatic chops or if her comic persona just gets in the way, but it really doesn’t matter, as her presence needlessly destabilizes the drama all the same.
Like many, many filmmakers before him, Hall also struggles with visualizing the symptoms of PTSD (his frustrations as an artist echoing those of the soldiers who suffer from the condition). He goes the typical route: Shockingly violent hallucinations that are true to real-life trauma but feel false on screen. Schumann may actually have suffered from visions of shooting his wife during sex, but these episodes don’t square with a civilian understanding of how war lingers inside of people. There’s something patronizingly literal about the approach; PTSD patients worry that people can’t see their pain, but seeing their pain doesn’t show us very much.
Seeing how their pain goes untreated, on the other hand, shows us everything. Without ever reducing its characters to mere talking points, “Thank You for Your Service” rages at the empty pageantry of how politicians talk about veterans; it’s right there in that pointedly empty title. If nothing else, this is a movie that recognizes the vast difference between standing for the anthem and actually honoring the values that it stands for. American soldiers are some of the strongest people on the planet, but they can’t always be expected to carry each other.
“Thank You for Your Service” opens in theaters on October 27.