Many films like The Hurt Locker, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, First Blood, Three Kings, and Jarhead are based on the hardships faced by soldiers. But few of them have dealt with the issue by using the kind of realistic and nuanced approach that Thank You for Your Service employs.
This is mainly what adds unique character to Thank You for Your Service, a film based on David Finkel’s non-fiction book of the same name. In the movie, a group of US soldiers return home from Iraq only to struggle with family and civilian life because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
For a film about soldiers and mental disorder, there is not a lot of loud drama or action taking place in Thank You for Your Service. But that is how director Jason Hall (who also wrote the screenplay for American Sniper) has decided to tell a hard-hitting story about mental illness.
Even in the calmest of scenes in the movie, there is always this sense of unease present among the characters. The soldiers in the movie are not brutish grunts who are always either screaming for help, shouting in anger or hitting stuff around them. On the contrary, they are mostly dealing with their issues quietly or by calmly talking to someone, trying to live in denial of the demons in their minds. There are, of course, scenes in which they snap or break down to reveal their shattered selves beneath the surface. But the general composure which they try to maintain, even in those loud scenes, makes things much more real.
Miles Teller (who also played Andrew Neiman in Whiplash) plays Adam Schumann, a soldier silently being torn apart from the guilt of not being able to safely rescue his fellow men during combat in Iraq. Teller successfully depicts the extent of the mental damage his character has suffered by expressing just the right amount of discomfort required for a scene. Schumann appears extremely disturbed and jaded when he hallucinates in one scene or accidentally drops his infant son from his bed in another. But he also gets more frustrated than usual with small issues, like when he realises he didn’t know that his daughter doesn’t like chocolate or because of the bureaucratic red tape of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Equally powerful yet subtle is the performance of Beulah Koale, who plays Solo Aeiti – one of Schumann’s closest friends. Aeiti suffers from PTSD and frequent memory loss to such an extent that he needs drugs to escape the mental turmoil. Koale’s facial expression during a scene which shows a brutal organised dog fight is what mainly makes the viewer realise the analogy being drawn in that scene.
Haley Bennett’s portrayal of Schumann’s wife Saskia is also commendable. Her character’s internal conflict arising out of a desperate desire to help her husband while being occasionally frightened of or alienated by him at the same time evokes instant empathy. And Joe Cole has a short but crucial role in the film, as he plays a soldier abandoned by his fiancée.
Thank You for Your Service also never paints the system and the society as some sort of villain which completely neglects soldiers. The system, with institutions like Department of Veterans Affairs and its counselors and psychologists, genuinely tries to help the veterans. But the film shows that there are just so many disturbed veterans out there that the overburdened system cannot efficiently handle them all.
This film also relies more on good acting, direction and screenplay than visuals to drive its point home. But there are some scenes portraying the hallucinations of Schumann or Aeiti whose excellent visuals will shock or scare you.
Despite its realistic storytelling and distinct identity, Thank You for Your Service feels unnecessarily slow and a bit repetitive at times. There are only so many scenes of soldiers slowly descending into PTSD that you can watch before you start correctly predicting what will happen in the scenes to come. The lackadaisical pace takes away some of the intensity of the movie.
Also, because the movie only portrays the problem without even trying to come up with some solutions, the point being made in some scenes seems pretty obvious and dull.
Nonetheless, Thank You for Your Service is an honest, well-intentioned and unique film which treats mental illness with the seriousness and sensitivity that it deserves.