Editor’s Note: In addition to Steve’s film review, check out his interview with star Miles Teller, filmmaker Jason Hall and film subject Adam Schumann here.
Although the film is sometimes dangerously close to packing in too much drama and too many obstacles in the life of an Iraq War veteran, it’s that very sense of being overwhelmed that likely best captures the post-war life of Adam Schumann (a real person, portrayed by Miles Teller), who is forced to deal with an endless and confusing mess of paperwork in order to get access to benefits he has unquestionably earned. Based on the book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter/author David Finkel, Thank You for Your Service marks the directing debut of Jason Hall (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of American Sniper), who has a true affection and affinity for returning soldiers struggling with mental and physical issues, while also being given the added burden of government red tape.
On top of what he must face at home (suffering from PTSD), Schumann also must deal with a very specific memory of his time in Iraq that almost suffocates him with guilt. Despite the fact that the buddies he returns with—one of which has some manner of brain injury, the other struggles with depression—don’t think he has anything to feel guilty about, Schumann is a man who feels deeply and, not surprisingly, feels more comfortable around other veterans than he does with his wife Saskia (Haley Bennett) and child. I’ve certainly seen films that deal quite realistically with the psychological damage of war on returning soldiers, but Hall’s portrayal of multiple trips to the overcrowded VA offices makes those hours feel like the greatest battle these men will ever fight. Boredom, anger, frustration and disappointment are tough things to ask of anyone, especially someone who has put their lives on the line for their country.
Filmmaker Hall makes time for the other soldiers’ stories as well, but it’s Schumann he seems most captivated by. Whether it’s going to meet an old friend secluded in a cabin in the woods or forcing himself to visit the widow (played by an almost unrecognizable Amy Schumer) of a friend who died in country, Thank You for Your Service never resorts to sentimentality or other false emotional notes. Not unlike the performance he gives in still-in-theaters Only the Brave, Teller benefits from dialing back his usually more cocky persona to give a reserved and authentic performance of a strong man in crisis who genuinely wants to get help. Here, he’s not the type of man who thinks therapists are for the weak.
As an audience member, it’s impossible to watch Thank You for Your Service and not wonder how you would fare under similar circumstances. And each of Schumann’s buddies handles the stress and pain much differently. The film doesn’t provide any easy answers to the issues surrounding the overwhelming number of veterans coming home and going into a system that isn’t designed for such volume. But it does ask all of the right questions, and under any other administration, I’d almost believe a film like this might start a conversation that resulted in actual, useful changes when it comes to veterans affairs.
Whether he meant to or not, Hall has crafted an unapologetic message film—something that can be shown to VA hospital administrators who would be helpless to say that what is on screen is exaggerated; if anything, it likely softens the punches aimed at them. Of the mainstream offerings this week, this is your best bet.