‘Thank You For Your Service’ Tells An Important Story But Can’t Avoid Easy Sloganeering

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.

Schumann’s best pals are Solo Aieti (Beulah Koale), a would-be lifer from American Samoa who says the Army saved his life but whose plans to re-enlist are complicated by his traumatic brain injury, and Will Waller (Joe Cole), a whipped bro whose plans to marry his sweetheart are derailed when she cleans out his bank account and vacates their shared abode without a word. There’s plenty of good in Thank You For Your Service, even occasional flashes of brilliance, and that’s most plainly evident in the non-expository interactions between the principals, the parts where they aren’t talking about what they did and what happened on which mission and what demons they still carry. There’s real chemistry between the actors, and Hall wisely resists the temptation to overexplain their lewd references to sexts and “man-love Thursday” (look that one up if you’ve never heard it).

As Hall told a Colorado newspaper recently, “We need to open our arms up and carry these guys home.” It’s a worthwhile sentiment wrapped in a hokey, faux-meaningful metaphor. Likewise, the movie itself desperately wants us to care about PTSD, and getting help for our PTSD-afflicted veterans, but much of its imagery is so generic — think Oliver Stone’s “wargasms” redux, the “I got these demons inside me” rage of a Staind song, and frequent flashbacks in which dead comrades return in visions to shriek at the living — that it does a disservice not only to itself but to the veterans it wants us to care about. As veteran Alex Horton wrote for this site a few years back, cinema’s veterans “tend to exhibit the most extreme cases of post-traumatic stress. Driven by their demons and guilt, war veterans onscreen are invariably unstable, violent and sullen.”

Never was that more true than in Thank You For Your Service, in which Teller’s Schumann drops a baby on its head during a nightmare, Koale’s Aieti puts his fist through a door braying like Jack Nicholson in The Shining during a domestic dispute, and Cole’s Waller commits a memorable act of savagery. There’s a fine line between getting an audience to care about veterans and perpetuating the kind of stereotypes that keep veterans from landing a job, and Thank You For Your Service dances all over it. Hall, who worked with Chris Kyle before Kyle was murdered by a veteran with PTSD, probably feels that his own experiences with Kyle and the fact that he’s working from non-fictional source material here free him from the burden of depiction. But plenty of people live and work with Iraq War veterans without fearing for their lives, and you’d never know that from watching Thank You For Your Service. It’s not that Hall treats anyone unfairly, per se; it’s that he’s trying to make a point that requires a scalpel and all he has is a butcher knife.

Aside from that, the movie is… well, kind of a bummer. It may feel logical that the characters in a movie about characters wrestling with their internal demons should spend most of their screen time talking about those demons, but for one thing it makes the story a slog, and for another it doesn’t feel that true to life. Depressed people are some of the funniest people I know. That’s not to say it’s entirely dour, there’s a scene starring Scott Haze as a wounded vet that strikes the perfect balance of acting, gravity, and humor. But overall the ratio is off. There’s also a weird interlude in which Aieti gets involved with a drug dealer (played wonderfully by Omar J. Dorsey) that seems to treat black people as a PTSD pitfall to be avoided (again: butcher knife, scalpel).

Just as American Sniper — which made four or five good narrative decisions for every really bad one — was a bit of a Rorschach test, in which you could leave seeing in it what you wanted to, Thank You For Your Service is mixed and clumsy and occasionally good and ends on arguably its most sour note — a closing credits song in which Bruce Springsteen and the real Schumann growl a Springsteenized version of Schumann’s “Freedom Cadence,” repeating “freedom isn’t free.”

Is… that what the movie was about? I watched the whole thing and I didn’t see anything about “freedom.” Moreover, if you make a movie about war and patriotism and our what we owe our combat veterans, it behooves you to go beyond the usual platitudes.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.