There are American children now receiving their driver’s licenses who’ve never known a time when their country hasn’t been at war. Unlike previous generations, whose culture was fundamentally altered by soldiers returning from conflicts — think the Lost Generation, the Greatest Generation, the counterculture of the ’60s — the advent of the all-professional army in the late 20th and 21st century has successfully compartmentalized the trauma of killing and dying and suffering physical and psychological wounds within a largely static class of permanent military personnel and their families. The larger public is now insulated from the consequences of US foreign policy, leaving veterans and their families at the frontlines of that fundamental disconnect.
Thank You For Your Service is a laudable attempt to remove some of that insulation, to tell the story of that disconnect. It’s a movie that wants us to care about people but only seems capable of speaking in symbols, perpetuating two harmful “broken veteran” stereotypes for every kernel of insight it offers. It obscures its own salient points trying to gild them with country song sloganeering.
The film is written and directed by Jason Hall, who previously adapted Chris Kyle’s book American Sniper for Clint Eastwood, here working from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel’s book of the same name. Thank You For Your Service stars Miles Teller — helping him complete some kind of famous-actor-playing-blue-collar-Americans version of hitting for the cycle, having played a boxer, a fireman, and now a soldier in his last three movies. I guess because he has scars on his face? Whatever you think of Teller’s corny off-screen persona, he has an endearing way of soft-pedaling his lumpy brashness — vaguely reminiscent of Russell Brand’s surprising likability any time Russell Brand isn’t playing himself.
Teller plays Adam Schumann, an Iraq War veteran returning to his native Kansas, an accent Teller renders as a sort of vaguely Southern with his natural Pennsylvanian occasionally peeking through. In the first shot, dog tags, presumably from fallen comrades, twinkle in the sun as Teller intones, “I was a good soldier. I had purpose and I loved it.”
The power of a soldier’s story, as most stories, is in its specificity. The fatal error Hall makes here and frequently throughout the rest of the film is in trying to apply Schumann’s experience universally. Schumann goes on to tell us that he rode shotgun in the convoy’s lead Humvee, where his job was spotting IEDs. “You don’t see IEDs, you feel them,” Schumann tells us.
That’s specific, and compelling. But rather than elaborate on the thought, Hall leaves it to dangle there like an aphorism and grafts it onto an image from a t-shirt — the twinkling dog tags. Getting an audience to care about soldiers as individuals is a worthwhile goal, but in order to do that, you have to present them to us as individuals. Hall can’t seem to resist trying to turn them into symbols, and the symbols he chooses are usually sort of hacky.