In a year of sorry national spectacles, none seems more bitter or pointless than the feud that broke out last month between the Trump administration and the family of Sergeant La David Johnson, one of four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger during an ambush by Islamist militants. The president’s clumsy handling of a condolence call to Johnson’s widow, the unprincipled disclosure of his words to the media by U.S. congresswoman Frederica Wilson, the false charges leveled against Wilson by White House chief of staff John Kelly, the congresswoman’s gratuitous accusation of racism as a factor in the administration’s actions—no one emerged unsullied from the conflict, in which Johnson’s sacrifice for his country was steadily obscured by bickering over who had dishonored his memory.
More than anything, the fracas called attention to the ever-widening gulf between U.S. soldiers and civilians. As Kelly pointed out during his televised lecture to the Washington press corps, only a tiny percentage of the population serves in the military. “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them,” he said. “Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best that this country produces. And they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to our nation is not only appropriate but required.” Americans have grown used to this kind of military exceptionalism, which Kelly compounded by prioritizing the questions of reporters who knew Gold Star families, and which White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cast in even more ominous terms by implying that no one should question the word of a four-star general.
Arriving in the middle of all this, Thank You for Your Service dramatizes David Finkel’s best-selling 2013 nonfiction book of the same name, which exposes the mental health crisis among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans that has led to an epidemic of suicides among returning servicemen and -women. The book is heartbreaking, and every American should read it, but the best one can say about the well-meaning movie version, written and directed by Jason Hall, is that it might lead some moviegoers back to the source material. The people who risk their lives overseas deserve not only better mental health care but a clearer, more candid account of what they experience than Hall is prepared to deliver. At critical moments in the story he seems to back away from the trauma of his real-life subjects, hamstrung by the sort of careful respect demanded by Kelly and Sanders.
Finkel’s book unfolds as a series of intimate personal portraits, not only of returning veterans but of family members who endure their violent episodes of posttraumatic stress disorder and counselors who battle bureaucratic red tape to get them the therapy they need. Letters, journal entries, and text messages drive home the soldiers’ sense of alienation as they bring horrifying memories of combat back to a country that barely knows the war is happening. Isolated and angry, they drink too much, turn on their loved ones, and become a threat to their families and themselves. In the cruelest of ironies, men who’ve already made an inordinate sacrifice for their country are driven to suicide by a sense of guilt over the buddies they couldn’t save.
Such is the case with 28-year-old Adam Schumann of Junction City, Kansas, whose experience provides Finkel with his sturdiest plotline. Two years after having returned from a third tour of duty as a victim of combat stress, Schumann accidentally lets his baby son roll off a bed onto the floor, and the sense of having let someone down triggers feelings of guilt and worthlessness over the death of another soldier who took his place on a patrol. Schumann and his wife, Saskia, argue endlessly; eventually she discovers him in their basement furnace room with the barrel of a shotgun under his chin, and spends an eternity begging him to surrender the gun before the baby’s cry from the floor above jolts Adam from his tunnel vision. Following this incident, Adam wins admission to the Pathway Home, an independent treatment facility located on the grounds of the California Veterans Home, and the rest of the book turns on whether he can banish his demons before his overburdened wife finally walks out on him.
One of the book’s most significant characters is Tausolo Aiete, a soldier from Schumann’s old company who suffered a traumatic brain injury when his Humvee was blown into the air by an improvised explosive device. Back in Kansas, Aiete is plagued by memory problems and tortured by nightmares about another man in the same Humvee who burned to death before Aiete could pull him out. (“Why didn’t you save me?” the man asks.) Assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit, which is composed entirely of severely wounded soldiers, Aiete drinks heavily and explodes periodically; Finkel excerpts a 911 call placed by the soldier’s wife, Theresa, as she cowered in the bathroom after a beating.
Jason Hall makes his directing debut with the screen version of Thank You for Your Service, having been catapulted into the big time with his script for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Adapted from the autobiography of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (who was murdered by a fellow veteran in 2013), American Sniper opened in the postholiday dead zone of January 2014 and—in one of those pre-Trump blips that signaled how little the national media understood the red states—surprised industry observers by storming the box office to the tune of $547 million. Some critics praised Hall and Eastwood for their portrait of Kyle as a soldier who couldn’t bring himself to rejoin the civilian population, though the movie was attacked from both the left and the right for its inaccuracies. Hall takes a similarly lackadaisical approach to the facts in Thank You for Your Service, inventing characters and scenes as he tries to create a story arc moviegoers will recognize.
Hollywood has never produced a better film about veterans than The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), William Wyler’s Oscar-winning drama in which three soldiers return from the Pacific to their small Ohio town but can’t pick up where they left off. The opening sequence shows the men bonding as they sit in the nose of an air transport plane, the countryside rolling by beneath them; Hall concocts a similar opening for Thank You for Your Service, showing Schumann (Miles Teller), Aiete (Beulah Koale), and an invented character, Billy Waller (Joe Cole), shooting the shit during an army flight back to Topeka. In The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the veterans returns to his parents’ home to learn that his wife has moved out and moved on; in Thank You for Your Service, Billy finds his old place empty and his fiance unwilling to answer his calls. After spending the night with Adam (and leaving his bedding neatly folded on the couch), he shows up at the bank where his fiance works as a teller and shoots himself in the head.
More additions follow: To give Aiete a fuller story line, Hall has added an overheated subplot in which the veteran falls in with a local hood, drops the ball when entrusted with an illegal gun sale, and has to be rescued from a hail of bullets by Adam. True or not, this story adds nothing, and it leaves less screen time for the fractious relationship between Adam and his wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett, the movie’s biggest asset aside from Teller). The real-life couple granted Finkel access to their personal communications, and their back-and-forth texts, often quoted at length, illuminate the messy business of a husband and wife trying to reconnect as one of them is immobilized by psychological trauma. Hall gives a pretty good sense of their strained family life, but he drops the book’s central confrontation, when Saskia finds Adam in the furnace room and tries to talk him down. I can’t imagine a more gripping scene—or how painful it might be for the real-life Schumanns to see blown up on a movie screen.
The biggest difficulty in dramatizing Finkel’s book is the sense of anticlimax at the end—though Adam Schumann finally begins to work through his emotional issues at the Pathway Home, Finkel is too honest to suggest that his struggle will ever really end. Unfortunately Hall addresses this narrative challenge by lopping off the last chapter of the Schumanns’ story: the movie ends shortly after Adam confesses to war widow Amanda Doster (a woebegone Amy Schumer) that her late husband died taking his place on patrol, and she responds by ordering him to get better. (“You live!” she insists. “That’s how you honor him.”) This might feel more conclusive than Finkel’s ending, but it smacks of self-help literature (in which half the battle is admitting you’ve got a problem) and Hollywood corn (like an old social drama whose final credit reads not “The End” but “The Beginning”).
Thank You for Your Service grossed a meager $3.7 million when it opened last weekend, so apparently what drove American Sniper through the roof was its crosshairs suspense, not its downer stuff about dysfunctional veterans. The gulf between soldiers and civilians isn’t just widening—it’s deepening, as the military and their families begin to think of themselves as a separate class (whether exalted or exploited). Bringing back compulsory national service might alleviate that, but no politician will go near such an expensive solution, and for decades the Pentagon has been working toward a smaller, more specialized fighting force, the better to wage war against jihadist enemies in far-flung corners of the world (like Niger). And Americans are who they are: we may sing hosannas to the nation’s fighting men and women, but we prefer to view the human ravages of war the way a sniper does—through a telescopic sight, and far, far away. v