There’s an irony in the title that may not be immediately evident. More so than most other western countries, in America there’s a demonstrative respect given to the men and women who serve, who fight, who give their everything so that others don’t have to. And often that respect stretches to the families, even to the parents whose personal and private sacrifice is sometimes acknowledged. Saying, “Thank you for your service,” is an honorable tribute and welcome words to anyone in uniform. It’s the least we can do.
But there’s another side to the phrase that can sometimes feel hollow when that service is done and the soldiers return. Depending on what occurred while deployed, the actions taken, the mistakes made – and there will always be the making of life and death mistakes if deployed often or long enough – and the damage done, returning home in whatever physical or mental condition can and will take its toll. In this case, the film’s title can be understood as either sincere or ironic; it works either way.
From a script written by director Jason Hall, and based on writer David Finkel’s real-life stories, Thank You for Your Service focus on three men. They’re returning U.S. soldiers from Baghdad dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and they’re trying, and failing, to adjust to civilian life.
“I was a good soldier,” states Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) in an introductory narration. “I had purpose, and I loved it.” Upon returning to his wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett) and his two children, he tells Saskia that he’s happy to be back. “I’m here,” he tells her with a smile. “I got all my pieces. It’s perfect.” But Adam is a broken man. Out of his closest wartime buddies, he’s clearly the least damaged, but he’s still wounded, carrying the guilt of events we’ll see in glimpses at the beginning, then later in more detail towards the end.
Then there’s American Samoan soldier, Tausolo Aieti (New Zealand actor, Beulah Koale), nicknamed Solo, who believes it’s the military that gives him purpose. His memory is failing – he’s not always sure of the date, or even the day – but all he wants is to be redeployed. When his wife gives birth, he states, “I’m going to name him after me so I don’t forget his name.”
Finally there’s soldier Will Waller (English born, Joe Cole), a man who returns home, eager to be with his fiancee and daughter, and the soon-to-be wedding. On the taxi ride home, the driver asks, “You kick some ass over there?” With a wry and somewhat reluctant smile, he says, “Yeah.” But upon arriving home, he feels the ultimate abandonment. The house is empty. No furniture, no power, and no way of contacting the woman who has clearly left him with no word of goodbye.
There are others we’ll meet, and they’re all to do with what happened at one particular moment when on duty, riding through the streets of Baghdad in a Humvee. A decision made to drive in a different direction causes an ambush with life changing results. Upon returning home, one will have his marriage come apart, another will inadvertently become involved with the wrong types in a bad part of town, and another will take his life.
Fortunately, despite the drama and the overwhelming sense that these men are living a life as civilian afterthoughts – they gave but no one seems to be in a rush to give back – there’s eventually hope on the horizon, as indicated by the closing credits with some where-are-they-now shots of the real-life men and women. What makes Thank You for Your Service work so well is not only the feel of something genuine, it’s also the uniformly good performances throughout. These guys really do convince that they served.
Miles Teller makes a strong lead, continually marking a presence with every new performance, with solid support from both Koale and Cole. So does Haley Bennett as Teller’s wife, Saskia. When she tells him, “I’m tougher than you. I can take anything you can,” you believe her; you continually see her strength. And surprising in a small but affecting role as a military wife whose husband doesn’t make it back is comedian Amy Schumer. When you first see her it may take a moment of adjustment until you realize it’s even her.
The enthusiastic praise of the film’s title given to those in uniform at an earlier time doesn’t feel quite the same when the return home might be fraught with the physical pain of having been caught in harm’s way, or the mental pain derived from horrors witnessed and the guilt felt. Stuck with a system that seems to delay help and appears to be in no hurry to get things moving while a vet suffers, thanking him for his service when the county itself appears to be offering no rewards for what he’s done can sometimes ring empty; certainly, that’s how it can feel to the soldier suffering. Saying it before moving on with their own lives really is the least a civilian can do.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 108 Minutes Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)