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Movies/TV

Review: 'Thank You for Your Service' offers empathy for the veteran's experience

Miles Teller (left) and Beulah Koale as returning Iraq War veterans.
Miles Teller (left) and Beulah Koale as returning Iraq War veterans.

A veteran’s assimilation into civilian life comes with high expectations – ones made even higher when the returning warrior has wounds that can’t be seen. With limbs intact and no significant scarring, so the thinking goes, adjustment should be easy.

Yet, it’s the expectations of the former soldiers themselves – not society’s – that are set the highest.

That’s a small piece of the wisdom behind “Thank You for Your Service,” an observant drama about returning veterans based on the nonfiction book by David Finkel, an editor and former reporter at The Washington Post. Feelings of guilt and shame – to say nothing of post-traumatic stress – often pervade the lives of former soldiers. Writer-director Jason Hall astutely conveys these and other facets of the modern veteran’s experience, generating authentic drama, in scenes that play out in unexpected ways.

The film opens in 2007, with an intense vignette from the Iraq War: Sgt. Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) leads his team to a rooftop, where a soldier (Scott Haze) is almost immediately shot in the head. Adam carries the stricken man back down the stairs, getting covered in blood. Smash forward to Adam’s flight home, where anxious family members wait inside an airport hangar, Adam’s wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), among them.

Saskia’s excitement is short-lived, since Adam already is experiencing hallucinations and PTSD. His friend Solo (Beulah Koale) is worse off still, with memory loss resulting from a series of head injuries. In private conversation and at therapy sessions provided by a seemingly indifferent Department of Veterans Affairs, both men acknowledge their trauma. Yet, the path forward is littered with red tape and emotional peril.

Hall, the filmmaker, shrewdly burrows into Adam’s and Solo’s psyches, revealing character obliquely through mundane activities that serve to highlight the depth of their troubles. In one remarkable scene in which Adam brushes his teeth and makes breakfast for his daughter, Teller communicates the soldier’s internalized sense of purpose: Before, he would brush his teeth while gearing for battle. Now, with the stakes so much lower, he feels an aimlessness, a sense of disappointment that is impossible to share or explain.

That’s but one of the myriad minor adjustments Adam must make, while others have the potential to be deadly. When Adam and Solo go hunting before dawn, for instance, Adam thinks he sees an armed enemy approaching in the woods. Many films, including this one, use jump scares and hallucinatory imagery to suggest post-traumatic stress. Here, there are few special effects, conveying with simple, blunt power the breathtaking intensity of Adam’s and Solo’s imaginations.

The film is strongest, however, when it subverts expectation. When Adam salutes a superior officer at VA, his deference and sense of duty is met with a withering put-down. When Saskia joins Adam at a counseling session in which he openly discusses suicidal thoughts, his confession results in mutual laughter, not tears. Hall, who wrote the screenplay for “American Sniper,” brings a wartime sense of the unknown to domestic drama. If the soldier on patrol never knows what danger lurks around the corner, the veteran, likewise, has no idea what small, innocuous thing might be a comfort – or an emotional trigger.

Teller, who made a splash in such coming-of-age films as “The Spectacular Now” and “Whiplash,” brings a maturity and nonverbal eloquence to Adam, especially in scenes in which he yearns to tell his wife his true feelings, but all he can muster is a thousand-yard stare. Koale’s performance is the showier of the two, since Solo’s symptoms include lashing out and covering up for lost cognitive ability. Like Saskia, Solo’s wife (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is compassionate, but only up to a point. The story is at its most poignant when we’re shown how and why these women finally lose their patience.

“Service” is flawed only because the demands of narrative cinema require an ending, while recovery, at least in the real world, is a lifelong process. When Adam shares his darkest secret with a widow (a miscast Amy Schumer), the film frames it like a form of redemption, albeit one that’s unearned. Parts of Solo’s subplot – a story arc whose thriller-ish elements feel borrowed from an entirely different movie – are similarly inauthentic.

But if the film does justice to veterans and the pervasive problems many of them face – and it does – it’s not because it offers the possibility of healing, but something far more important: a simple acknowledgment of, and empathy for, their experience.

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