Thank You For Your Service and The Yellow Birds, two movies released in 2017 about traumatized Iraq veterans, are so much alike that one wonders if they were the result of an Apprentice-style contest in which two film-making teams were assigned the same set of ingredients and tasks and told to do their best. Among the similarities:
Source and title: Well-regarded books about war in Iraq (The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel).
Characters: Male soldiers distressed by survivor’s guilt, and women (moms, wives, and girlfriends) upset by the men’s behavior.
Setting: Rural places and small towns in Red State America (Virginia for The Yellow Birds and Kansas for Thank You For Your Service; both movies were filmed in Georgia).
Cast: Pleasant-looking young up-and-comers in the leading roles, with minor roles featuring big-name female stars (Jennifer Aniston in The Yellow Birds and Amy Schumer in Thank You For Your Service).
Pivotal scenes: Suicide and suicide attempts.
Closing soundtracks: Plaintive laments by classic-rock elder statesmen (John Mellencamp in The Yellow Birds and Bruce Springsteen in Thank You For Your Service).
All the above might be coincidental, but other shared attributes can’t be denied: both films flopped at the box office and critics didn’t seem to like them too much, either. Why? Grueling portraits of soldier trauma and family disfunction, punctuated by graphic scenes of suicide and attempted suicide, are probably never box-office dynamite, no matter how grippingly they are dramatized. The movies’ lack of success is also certainly linked to public indifference to the ongoing war-on-terror, reflected in the irony of Thank You For Your Service‘s title and in the oft-cited phrase “civil-military divide.” But the real problem is probably more aesthetic than cultural: Thank You For Your Service especially has a heavy-handed feel, as if its makers tried too earnestly to make a significant statement and forgot about making their movie entertaining. Kudos to them for caring-and-sharing, but even I, in a position more than most to like and respect such efforts, can at best give each movie a B, and even then for different reasons. The Yellow Birds, quirkier and more artistic, blends A moments (its cast and pictorial look) with C moments (plot and production values). Thank You For Your Service, on the other hand, is a pretty solid drive down the middle of the fairway. More firmly constructed than The Yellow Birds, it makes no major mistakes, but neither does it excel, excite, or generate the outrage that would seem to be its intent.
It’s been a while since I read Finkel’s book, a non-fiction work about veterans of the Army’s First Infantry Division in the years after they exited the service, so I won’t dwell too much on aspects that did or did not make it into the film version. Directed by Jason Hall, the screenwriter of American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service the movie elaborates on the parts of American Sniper in which supersniper Chris Kyle mopes about his home in Texas after his final deployment. The central figure in Thank You For Your Service the movie is Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, an infantry squad leader wracked by guilt over the death of his platoon sergeant in Iraq, a bungled effort to rescue one his men wounded-in-action, and the suicide of another shortly after the unit returns to the States. That’s an awful 1-2-3 punch, and out of the military, Schumann drifts moodily. His deep silences are a source of refuge for him but severely rattle his wife Saskia, with whom he has a daughter he barely knows. Not working and struggling to obtain benefits and help, Schumann bonds with another former soldier, Specialist Solo Aeiti, who is in even worse shape than Schumann due to traumatic brain injury caused by multiple IED blasts. Their friendship is not immediately fruitful, however, as each man slides deep into depression and erratic behavior, their marriages dissolving and the men haunted by flashbacks to battle in Iraq and hallucinations of their now-dead platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Doster. An added torment for Schumann is that he and Saskia have been forced to rent out their beloved home while taking residence in a cheaper, dumpier place. Grating Schumann to no end is that his wife unbeknownst to him has rented the old home to Sergeant Doster’s wife—a move that constantly reminds him of his guilt over Doster’s death, complicates efforts to evict Mrs. Doster, and contributes greatly to friction between Schumann and Saskia.
Miles Teller as Sergeant Schumann and Beulah Kole as Specialist Aeiti try hard, but they are less charismatic actors than the two male leads of The Yellow Birds, Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan. Amy Schumer, as Mrs. Doster, also does not compare favorably with Jennifer Aniston, though credit to Schumer for being brave enough to play a very dowdy, undesirable woman (in The Yellow Birds the chemistry between Ehrenreich and Aniston is palpable, while in Thank You For Your Service Schumann physically recoils from Mrs. Doster in a way that seems beyond “just acting”). More galvanizing on-screen than Teller and Kole are the minor male characters: Joe Cole as a dopey manchild who kills himself in front of the wife who abandons him while he is overseas; Brad Byer in very brief scenes as Sergeant Doster, Omar Dorsey as a drug-dealer who takes an interest in Aeiti, and, most of all, Scott Haze, who channels his inner-Christian Bale/Heath Ledger to portray a badly-disabled and manically-crazed fellow veteran of Sergeant Doster’s platoon. Also strong are the women who (along with Schumer) play the wives of the soldiers: Erin Darke, Keisha Castle-Hughes, and especially Haley Bennett as Saskia. Frankly, the movie picks up steam when any of the supporting cast joins Teller and Kole on-screen, and it subsides to a well-meaning trudge when it’s just one or both of them on display, which unfortunately is a lot of the movie.
Thank You For Your Service is a serious movie about difficult subjects: suicide, PTSD, TBI, physical disability, family turmoil, an uncaring Army, Department of Veterans Affairs ineptitude, and the plight of struggling veterans. Hall’s intent to treat his subjects with gravity and dignity comes through loud-and-clear, but he overdoes it. The movie is daintier about showing the soldiers’ warts than the book (as I remember it) and the characters’ reserve and docility drains the movie’s energy; Schumann and Aeiti just seem too old and well-behaved, even for “good” soldiers who value order and discipline and desire to do the right things. Several scenes gesture toward the raunchy dishevelment, emotional neediness, and chaotic, often ugly thought-processes of 20-something veterans in full meltdown mode, but for all the anguish and violence it depicts, Thank You For Your Service comes off as chaste, sedate, and tasteful, as if it were afraid of making its protagonists unsympathetic. Sexual infidelity is never an issue, for example, and the characters’ bad behavior flirts with but stops short of actual crime and physical abuse of loved ones–three omnipresent elements in the annals of veteran breakdowns. Well, good, but the only character in Thank You For Your Service who seems truly out-there and dangerous, the Scott Haze character, makes you wish for an entire movie entirely about him. And, go figure, though severely disabled and living in poverty and squalor, he’s still doing better emotionally and psychologically than Schumann and Aeiti.
Finally, the movie Thank You For Your Service concludes by suggesting that both Schumann and Aeiti eventually find the help they need through a private charity. That’s tying a happier bow on things than (once again) I remember from Finkel’s book, which ends with the protagonists’ fates in doubt (The Yellow Birds movie also concludes with a smilier face than Powers’ novel). I suppose the hopeful ending is meant to be an uplifting bone thrown to audiences who have come to love Schumann and Aieti and now want only the best for them and their families. The conclusion feels a little pie-in-the-sky, however, in keeping with the movie’s overall too-mannered dramatization of the titanic fury of soldiers’ lives spinning out of control while in the military and after. As of 2018, the movie that captures that spirit while also capturing an audience still awaits making.
Thank You For Your Service is also the name of a documentary about veterans’ mental healthcare released in 2016.