Friday, October 27, 2017

Thank You for Your Service: Gratefully sincere

Thank You for Your Service (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violent content, relentless profanity, sensuality, drug use and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.27.17

Some true-life stories wait patiently for big-screen exposure.

Others beg for attention. Repeatedly.

At first, being home is a happy relief for, from left, Solo (Beulah Koale), Will (Joe Cole)
and Adam (Miles Teller). Sadly, all three soon will fall prey to mounting anxiety and
other forms of severe psychological distress.
Hollywood long has addressed the challenges faced by returning military veterans, starting with 1946’s deeply moving The Best Years of Our Lives, an Academy Award-winning Best Picture made immediately in the wake of World War II. Since then, each war — and every generation — have been acknowledged by similarly earnest dramas: Coming Home, Gardens of Stone, Born on the Fourth of July, In the Valley of Elah and many others.

To that cinematic honor role we now add Thank You for Your Service, director/scripter Jason Hall’s heartfelt adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist David Finkel’s 2013 nonfiction book of the same title.

Hall’s approach is straightforward and bereft of typical war-film flash. The story has no nail-biting tension, in the manner of The Hurt Locker and Dunkirk, nor is this a senses-assaulting bloodbath akin to Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge. The brief combat sequences linger just long enough to make their point. Such choices are consistent with Hall’s desire to tell an uncomplicated story about regular guys who struggle to regain their souls, after leaving Iraq behind.

The story, set in 2008, focuses on three members of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion in Baghdad, as they muster out and return to their Stateside lives in and around Topeka, Kan.

Sgt. Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), an instinctive “bomb sniffer,” has completed his third deployment and — honoring a promise to his wife Saskia (Haley Bennett) —agrees to stay home this time. Tausolo “Solo” Aeiti (Beulah Koale), in contrast, can’t wait to re-up ... much to the consternation of his wife, Alea (Keisha Castle-Hughes).

Will Waller (Joe Cole) has been counting the days until he can rejoin and marry his fiancée, Tracey (Erin Darke).

Schumann and Aeiti are actual individuals who figured prominently in Finkel’s book. Waller is a construct, inserted to convey one of the many other “homeward bound” sagas that Finkel gleaned during his extensive research and numerous interviews.

The three are inseparable, and not merely because they were in the same unit; there’s a strong sense that they either knew each other as civilians, or bonded during boot camp. All are damaged psychologically, in ways both subtle and obvious (if mostly to each other). This is a particular thorn in Solo’s side; he grouses about not being viewed more sympathetically, as a legitimate “hero,” because his wounds aren’t visible, as with soldiers who’ve lost limbs.

Aside from depicting the mounting anxiety that insidiously tears at each man, Hall has another objective, as revealed by one of his press notes comments: “As adept as we are at fighting, we’re not very good at bringing them home.”

Unlike the protagonists in many films of this nature, Adam and Solo quickly recognize — and act upon — their need for help. This thrusts them into the ghastly bureaucratic nightmare of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. To Hall’s credit, he doesn’t characterize these people as callous, soulless, desk-bound monsters. (That indictment is reserved for a clueless, condescending officer briefly encountered by Adam.)

The VA folks are compassionate and concerned; they’re also helplessly overwhelmed by insufficient staff and sheer numbers. One of them quotes disheartening statistics, and Hall lets us make up our own minds. The conclusion is obvious, as it has been for decades: Our neglect of returning soldiers is contemptible, and Capitol Hill’s failure to act is a national disgrace.

(But I digress.)

Although Hall cuts between all three men and their individual experiences, Schumann is the story’s focus. Teller, competing with his equally fine work in the recently released Only the Brave, holds our attention much the way Schumann was — and remains — respected by the men in his battalion.

Teller projects charisma, intelligence and perception: Schumann doesn’t miss much. At first blush, he also seems “stable” while re-integrating with his wife and their two young children. But he’s also too quiet; Bennett’s Saskia senses this, just as we do. In the (perhaps ill-advised) tradition of the Greatest Generation survivors of World War II, Schumann refuses to talk about his experiences.

Which is a mistake, as we viewers are aware, on the basis of the film’s grim prologue. By bottling up guilt, anxiety and fear, Schumann creates a psychological cancer that slowly engulfs his soul: a transition that Teller conveys, still silently, as his eyes — even the set of his body — take on a haunted, hunted look.

Bennett’s work is equally fine. Saskia clearly loves her husband, despite the degree to which he has changed, and continues to change. The subtleties of her character are intriguing: She clearly resents the degree to which Adam’s military service has potentially destroyed their hopes and original plans for life, but she’s careful not to blame him for this.

Bennett’s behavior is nurturing but wary; Saskia often reaches for Adam with the uncertainty of somebody attempting to comfort a wild animal ... which — and this is the point — isn’t far off the mark.

Koale rises to a similarly challenging role, because — despite his belief to the contrary — Solo definitely, clearly is damaged. He dismisses the diagnosis that a bomb explosion left him with a traumatic brain injury, insisting that he’s fit to return overseas. But Koale’s tics and twitches visibly refute this optimism, as does his initial interview with a VA clinician, who immediately spots Solo’s short-term memory loss.

Solo’s despair, as this condition worsens with time, is shattering; Koale’s performance is heartbreaking. He makes Solo the most volatile and unpredictable of the trio: a man who gradually realizes that he can’t control his behavior, and who embraces the worst possible “relief.”

Castle-Hughes makes Alea watchful and silent; she’s not as emotionally or intellectually equipped to deal with the stranger her husband has become, as is Saskia.

Cole’s Will Waller quickly becomes an object of concern — both to us, and his friends — because his long-nurtured Stateside plans are so inflexible; he has no back-up plan. Much more than with the other two, we worry how he’ll cope if any little thing goes wrong.

Amy Schumer goes brunette and abandons any pretense of her comic persona in a straight role as Amanda Doster, a young mother haunted by questions relating to the loss of her husband — questions that she believes Adam can answer — mere days shy of James Doster’s scheduled leave. Schumer certainly isn’t the film’s strongest actor, but she handles the role with reasonable conviction.

Hall imbues all primary characters with a strong sense of honor, duty and military protocol: a bearing always presented as a virtue. Politeness and integrity are signs of respect, and never held up for ridicule. We get no contrived drunken brawls with locals, no jeers from insufferable liberals. Hall — and his film — respect and value those who embrace military service: no real surprise, given the well-deserved Oscar nod he got for scripting 2014’s American Sniper.

Production designers Keith P. Cunningham and John P. Goldsmith give us a strong sense of the Topeka and Fort Riley settings, along with the various lower-class but nonetheless cozy living environments in which these folks are established. Thomas Newman’s orchestral score is understated, and quite effective as a given scene demands.

A few brief sequences feel jarringly superfluous or exploitative, most notably Solo’s encounter with dangerous folks who — among other vices — sponsor illegal dogfights. Close-ups of the latter, no matter how fleeting, are gratuitous and unnecessary.

Hall also concludes his narrative much too abruptly; it feels as if a good-sized chapter was left behind.

These aren’t crippling issues, and they certainly don’t detract from the film’s quiet power and its core message. We need to do better, and I hope filmmakers like Hall keep hammering the point home.

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