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Friday, October 27, 2017

Thank You for Your Service

Thank You for Your Service, the directorial debut of screenwriter Jason Hall (he wrote American Sniper), is a well-meaning film that often feels very familiar.  We seem to get a movie about war veterans coming home at least once a year, and by this point, a movie like this needs to really stand out from the crowd.  Despite some great performances and a few effective moments, this movie never seems quite as angry as it should be about some of the subjects it covers.

Based on David Finkel's nonfiction book of the same name, the movie follows Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), a military sergeant who returns home from the battlefields of the Middle East with a lot of emotional scars that he doesn't know how to cope with.  His concerned wife (Haley Bennett) and their two children do their best to try to make his return comfortable, but he's obviously hiding something.  He says he's fine.  But when he unwisely goes hunting in the woods one night with a friend, he thinks he can see enemy soldiers waiting behind the trees waiting to ambush him.  And when he takes an evaluation test to judge his mental stability since coming home, he openly admits that he sometimes thinks of taking his life in order to silence his nightmares.  When his wife discovers these results, she has to figure out how to help her husband get through this.

In parallel subplots, two of Adam's friends who came home from the war at the same time are also dealing with their own issues.  Tausolo Aieti, aka "Solo" (Beulah Koale) wants to reenlist, but he's suffered a severe brain injury which keeps him at home.  His mental instability leads to him lashing out violently at his pregnant wife (Keisha Castle-Hughes), and seeking out illegal drugs in order to keep himself under control.  His other friend, Will Waller (Joe Cole), was expecting to marry his fiance (Erin Drake) when he came home, but she's not there when the plane lands.  He heads for home, only to see that she has moved out, taken everything, and frozen most of his finances.  All three are forced to confront their inner demons upon returning home.  Adam is confronted by the wife of a fallen soldier (Amy Schumer, very good in a rare dramatic role), who wants to know how her husband died.  Adam has the answers, but he can't face her, or admit to what happened.  Solo hooks up with a drug gang in order to get his fix, and ends up in over his head.  As for Will, he may not have the strength to carry on.

Thank You for Your Service tackles a pretty broad range of subjects, from survivor's guilt, to having trouble adjusting to civilian life after being in combat, to how inadequate the system that is supposed to help these soldiers adjust to their regular lives and deal with their problems can really be.  I can imagine these subjects leading to a great documentary, but here in a Hollywood film that runs just short of two hours, the movie never seems quite blistering or strong enough.  Yes, there are effective moments.  The scenes where Adam visits a fellow soldier who has come to grips with his current place in life are some of the better acted in the film, and the moment where Will confronts his ex-fiance is chilling, but probably would have been more so if the film had not foreshadowed what was going to happen right before it occurs.  Other moments seem a bit more pat and manufactured.  The whole drug dealer subplot is right out of any B-Urban Drama movie, and a sequence involving a wounded pitbull is deeply manipulative. 

Writer-director Hall often seems at war with himself throughout the movie.  Does he want to make a somewhat hopeful film that can attract mass audiences, or does he want to show the reality of what thousands of veterans face?  He seems to be trying to split the difference between the two approaches, and that's ultimately why I think the movie strikes a somewhat effective, but largely uneven tone.  This is a similar problem with many films that try to cover the subject of soldiers coming home which have come out the past few years.  They have seldom succeeded at the box office, and it's largely because it's a tough tone to generate successfully in a mainstream Hollywood film.  Go too dark and realistic, and you drive people away.  Get too sentimental or manipulative, and you don't feel honest.  This movie falls somewhere in between.  There are moments of power here, and the cast is clearly giving it their all, but it never felt like it was fully working to me.

The whole time I was watching this movie, I kept on thinking how I'd rather be watching a documentary about Adam Schumann, and the many others out there who are just like him.  What we ultimately have here is a movie that is very easy to admire for what it is trying to do, but a bit harder to embrace because of it's overall unevenness. 

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