After returning home from multiple Iraq deployments, a group of traumatized soldiers struggle to adapt to civilian life in “Thank You for Your Service,” a clear-sighted and dramatically deft biographical war film featuring Miles Teller (“Whiplash”), Haley Bennett (“The Girl on the Train”), Keisha Castle-Hughes, Amy Schumer and Beulah Koale.
Written and directed by “American Sniper” screenwriter Jason Hall, in his debut feature, this unsparingly honest, emotionally resonant and eminently commendable soldier drama may not be brimming with the kind of relentless action that audiences expect from war films, but it makes up for it with powerful drama and profound insight. Based on Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Finkel’s book of the same name, despite focusing almost exclusively on the soldiers’ post-war lives, particularly domestic drama, moviegoers will be hard-pressed to find a dull moment in this thoroughly engaging and vividly depicted cinematic endeavor. Solidly acted, sharply written, and handled with a level of confidence more fitting for a veteran than a first-timer, “Thank You for Your Service” tackles a troubling subject matter with dignity and grace, and tells one hell of an emotional tale along the way.
Set in the late 2000s in the thick of the Iraq War, “Thank You for Your Service” follows a group of soldiers from the 2-16 Infantry Battalion as they make their bittersweet homecoming to Topeka, Kansas, following an especially brutal tour of duty. There’s Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), a family man and father of two who returns to his young wife Saskia (Haley Bennett) a shell of his former gregarious self; Tausolo “Solo” Aeiti (Beaulah Koale), a loyal soldier and father-to-be whose harrowing battlefield experiences have left him deeply shaken; and Will Waller (Joe Cole), a similarly embattled infantryman whose already fragile mental state is rattled further when he discovers his girlfriend has moved on in his absence.
Thinking the war itself was their most dangerous task, the soldiers soon learn that the psychological scars that they’ve carried home with them – suicidal thoughts, violent nightmares, psychotic episodes – may prove the most perilous. As the soldiers struggle to cope with the lasting effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, they’re forced to navigate an underfunded and overloaded system ill-equipped to handle the epidemic.
With his brave and audacious feature debut, writer-director Jason Hall goes even further than he did with his “American Sniper” screenplay in examining “the war at home” faced by so many American soldiers. Dramatized with straightforwardness and brutal honesty, the script is highlighted by its realistic dialogue that credibly captures soldier speak as well as its narrative ambition, emphasizing the similarities of the soldiers’ conditions while also acknowledging the loneliness and individuality of their struggle. Although technically set against the Iraq War, the screenplay isn’t as concerned with that particular conflict as it is the residual effects of combat in general, making the material more universal and timeless in the process. And while the few moments of combat depicted in the film are superlatively staged and effectively emphasize the horrors of war, it’s all in the service of Hall’s singular focus to illuminate the mind of a soldier – an arguably even more dramatic setting than the battleground itself.
With his second leading role of this fall season, as Sergeant Adam Schumann, Miles Teller (“Only the Brave”) excels in a muscular performance that accurately captures his character’s psychological conflict and nicely relates the disparity between his former self and the shell-shocked soldier he’s become. More impressive, though, is the transformative turn by Beulah Koale as the deeply troubled Samoan soldier Solo Aeiti whose delicate mental state provides the film’s endless reservoir of suspense. Haley Bennett and Keisha Castle-Hughes put in dutiful work portraying the soldiers’ devoted wives, helping the storyline stress the far-reaching effects of PTSD, and Amy Schumer offers satisfactory support as well in the against-type role of a grieving wife seeking answers to her sergeant husband’s death.
Don’t be put off by the dark subject matter, for even though “Thank You for Your Service” shines a light on a tough topic, it remains utterly absorbing from start to finish.
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated R for strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material and brief nudity.