It’s been a long time since “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the beloved 1946 film about soldiers returning home to their families after World War II, but the story, in many ways, remains the same. In William Wyler’s movie, the sacrifices of war were embodied by vet-turned-actor Harold Russell, who lost both his hands in the Army. But combat injuries aren’t always so visible, as evidenced in “Thank You for Your Service,” the directorial debut of “American Sniper” writer Jason Hall, who adapted David Finkel’s book for the screen.
“Thank You for Your Service” explores the devastation of PTSD suffered by American soldiers returning home in 2007, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Washington Post journalist Finkel embedded with a group of soldiers in Iraq to write the book “The Good Soldiers,” and his follow up, “Thank Your for Your Service,” details their readjustment to their families and civilian life while battling physical, mental and emotional injuries.
Miles Teller stars as Sgt. Adam Schumann, who struggles to find his footing back home with his wife (Haley Bennett) and kids. He seems most at ease when looking out for his boys, like he did back in Iraq, and is plagued by guilt over incidents at home and abroad when he was unable to save his buddies from injury or death.
The detailing of their physical and emotional injuries is laid in an almost edutainment style, citing statistics about suicide, and careful questionnaires about mental distress. But it’s at once an account of PTSD and a wartime mystery. While these young vets struggle to receive treatment for their combat stress, traumatic brain injuries and suicidal thoughts, they also speak cryptically about, “what happened to Doster,” one of their comrades who died, leaving behind a distraught widow (Amy Schumer) searching for answers.
While parts of “Thank You for Your Service” work well, overall, the film is inconsistent. A middle section lays out a perfect villain that is disappointingly dropped: the governmental system that churns through boys and leaves them alone to navigate the bureaucratic nightmare that is Veterans Affairs, while admonishing them that it’s “bad for morale” to ask for help.
This biting, trenchant social commentary is abandoned for a misguided subplot involving Solo (Beulah Koale), Adam’s buddy, getting caught up in a bad situation with a drug dealer, a Desert Storm vet. It’s extremely disappointing that the film ultimately positions the real threat as a fellow vet, a man of color, rather than the war machine that chewed them up and spit them out.
The representations of the Army wives aren’t all that much to write home about either. They’re mostly shrill nags who can’t understand. Amy Schumer, making a turn toward dramatic fare, is woefully miscast. In a brown wig, it’s too hard to separate her from her comedic persona, and it almost feels like one of her “Inside Amy Schumer” sketches.
Teller is a compelling actor, and when the film focuses on Adam and his boys – their bonds forged in combat, sealed with blood – it’s sensitive and moving. No man is left behind, even back home. Teller is best across from Koale, who is utterly riveting in his soulful performance as the American Samoan soldier Solo. Despite its storytelling inconsistencies, the film reveals a harrowing veteran experience when it focuses simply on the men themselves.
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