It seems as though society would like to think that America worships the troops. With all the bumper stickers out there, politicians singing their praises and the Air Force flybys at sports events, it’s easy to arrive at that rationale.
But does everyone really love the troops? Or rather, do they just love the idea of them?
The truth is, soldiers are coming back from combat zones with countless traumatizing experiences. The list of nightmarish health problems they encounter is something no person wants to hear. We want war movies to end with the opposing forces defeated and soldiers returning home safely. We don’t want to see our heroes breaking down over a stack of disability paperwork and struggling to reintegrate back into society.
Thank You for Your Service, starring Miles Teller (Only the Brave), takes aim at these devastating realities and asks what we should do about them. It is the hope of the filmmakers, cast and the real-life soldiers this film is based on to get the conversation going and remove the red, white and blue guise that buries this truth.
The true story begins on the front lines of Iraq in 2007, with Adam Schumann (Teller) in the heat of battle. What happens next serves as the emotional force that drives this narrative forward: A moment of heroism goes awry and it affects Schumann and the other 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry soldiers when they return stateside.
Director Jason Hall has experience with this kind of movie after writing the screenplay and producing American Sniper. Both titles deal with similar themes, but his latest narrows its focus and centers primarily on the aftereffects of war. This decision proved to be challenging but necessary for Hall and Teller in capturing Schumann's story.
“With a movie like this, you’ve got to have a very fine touch. If you’re a fraction off, then it’s a cliché or stereotype, or you end up misrepresenting these men and women who have a ton of honor and made a huge sacrifice,” Hall said. “It’s tough subject matter, but it’s also a story that I felt needed to be told.”
Hall was aware of the criticisms that many have when it comes to making a movie about war, specifically when a real-life hero suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said Thank You for Your Service was the most difficult script he had ever written, and it took some time to crack. But ultimately, with the talent involved and Schumann’s support, Hall felt confident with bringing Schumann’s story to the big screen.
Teller, who’s no stranger to playing tough roles and being in films about trauma, understood what the film could mean socially and nationally. He did extensive research for the role, including many talks with Schumann and a five-day boot camp with some of his co-stars.
“We were surrounded by resources. [Hall] is well versed in this world and is aware of the climate these guys come back to. We had military advisers that put us through boot camp to make sure we got at least a taste physically and mentally of what all these characters would have experienced before they served,” Teller said. “When you go through collective suffering, we created a community and a brotherhood and a real feeling of responsibility during that first week, and that carried on throughout the entire filming.”
For Shumann, putting his thoughts in the pages of author and journalist David Finkel’s book (also titled Thank You for Your Service) and sharing his story with Hall and Teller was a cathartic experience that he cherishes and hopes will have an impact on others.
“It’s been a long therapy session. I was lucky to have [Finkel], because when I was removed from combat, I left my unit. I left my brothers there, and they were still fighting while I’m sitting at home making pancakes,” said Schumann. “With [Finkel], I could unload a lot of this baggage that I was carrying around. And now with the film, I can look back on everything I endured as a measurement of success. I can see who I was and who I am now. Any time I’m having a bad day, guess what, I can flip on Thank You for Your Service and realize, ‘Wow. That was a long time ago and pretty messed up, and today’s not so bad.’”
Shumann confessed that when you’re at home, isolated and trying to do normal things with your family it’s difficult to enjoy them, because in your head, “you’re back over there, feeling like a failure because you were sent home.” He described the feeling as being “everywhere at once,” and he feels that the film accurately showcases that cerebral insight.
While the dramatization built around Schumann’s story is heavy-handed and flawed, Thank You for Your Service has a firm understanding of the adversity our troops face, both on enemy soil and in our own backyard. It’s not a great movie by any stretch, but as you will see, it’s a necessary one.
PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.