“Thank You For Your Service” takes an empathetic approach to some of the challenges that servicemen face upon returning home from Iraq in 2007-2008. By portraying both their internal struggles as well as those of their families, the film will likely create an opportunity for dialogue about these significant challenges.
Despite the increasing familiarity of the phrase “post-traumatic stress” (or PTS) our collective understanding of its effects and treatment options leave much to be desired. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges to better understanding the subject stem from the on-screen stereotypes about those suffering through it. A brief glance back at the dozens of films that have touched upon PTS nearly always include a third act scene in which a servicemember has a violent break—throwing objects, punching a fist through drywall, or getting into a fight. Filmmakers seem unwilling to pass up an opportunity to use the drama inherent in such a moment. The byproduct, however, is a simplistic and problematic message that returning servicemembers are ticking time-bombs that will eventually go off.
Fortunately, writer/director Jason Hall takes care to sidestep most of these issues. There are scenes in which the aforementioned moments occur, but they are weaved into part of the characters’ journeys. No doubt the rich source material, David Finkel’s nonfiction book of the same name, helps keep the story grounded in reality. Hall wisely trimmed most of the screenplay’s action sequences, settling on those most affecting to Adam Schumann, played with quiet strength by Miles Teller. The story instead focuses more on the soldiers’ immediate challenges of returning home, from lingering trauma, guilt, and the seemingly endless bureaucratic obstacles on the path to getting help.
In a culture with a widening gulf between military and civilian populations, the film takes care to portray both evenly—while waiting at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a civilian therapist volunteers her lunch break time to speak to a soldier suffering with traumatic brain injury, while a lieutenant colonel quietly criticizes Schumann for seeking assistance. It is easy to recognize the complexity and challenges of navigating red tape and prevailing unit culture.
The film’s biggest drawback is that it doesn’t offer any new insights about post-traumatic stress. The last scene shows Schumann finally leaving for Pathway Homes, a treatment program for adults with mental illness and co-occurring disabilities. It is an ending at a moment that is actually a beginning. I wish the film had instead started at that moment and followed Schumann on his road to recovery. It is a missed opportunity to explore trauma and treatment in a way that has never before been done.
Fortunately, the film wisely keeps from offering any “cure” to post-traumatic stress. Instead, it commendably depicts therapy as the vital key to understanding one’s experiences and integrating them in a healthy way—a goal well worth seeking despite the internal resistance and frustrating bureaucratic obstacles. Perhaps then the greatest strength of “Thank You For Your Service” is providing audiences some incentive to turn to their loved ones and say, “if you ever want to talk, I am here.” That would be a good first step. ✯
Thank You For Your Service opens in theaters on October 27, 2017.