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Thank You for Your Service is an empathetic film about war vets and how America fails them

It’s hard not to watch through a politically tinged lens.

Miles Teller in Thank You For Your Service
Miles Teller in Thank You For Your Service.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Thank You for Your Service pulls off a triple feat: It honors the sacrifices that American soldiers make, it scathingly demonstrates the shameful way veterans are often treated upon their return home, and it probes the emotional lives of men in a culture that valorizes the “tough” and looks askance at the broken.

As a movie, it’s unwieldy, with melodramatic speeches and heavy-handed moments that slow down the initially compelling story. But it’s worth watching anyway. Based on David Finkel’s lauded 2013 nonfiction book of the same name, Thank You for Your Service is moving and unflinchingly honest — and its release comes at a time when its central theme feels depressingly relevant.

Thank You for Your Service follows several young veterans as they battle the demons they bring home — and endless piles of red tape

Thank You For Your Service opens on a battlefield in Iraq but quickly departs for America, where its three main characters — Army vets returning from a tour of duty — must readjust to the lives they previously left behind. Adam (Miles Teller, in a strong lead performance) returns to his wife Saskia (Haley Bennett) and their young children. Solo (Beulah Koale), who as an American Samoan was allowed to apply for American citizenship only after he enlisted in the Army, returns to his fiancée Alea (Keisha Castle-Hughes). And Will (Joe Cole) returns to the home he shares with his fiancée (Erin Darke) and their daughter, only to find she’s picked up and left.

There are plenty of grateful civilians back stateside, but there are also the challenges of navigating the return home — particularly since all three men are haunted by the death of their commander, Doster, as well as by the presence in their lives of his bereaved widow (Amy Schumer), who is simply trying to piece together what happened.

Beulah Koale, Joe Cole, and Miles Teller in Thank You For Your Service
Beulah Koale, Joe Cole, and Miles Teller in Thank You for Your Service.
Universal Pictures

We experience the men’s memories of Doster and a fellow soldier (Scott Haze) who survived, but with massive injuries, via flashbacks and dreams. The psychological toll that war has taken on the trio is the movie’s main subject, illustrated by the inescapable PTSD and depression and memory loss and dissociative states that they’re just supposed to “deal with” during the many months it takes to navigate bureaucracy and get help. That has shattering results for them as well as for their families, their financial states, and their futures.

Help is not only difficult to come by — it’s expensive, and endless wars without adequate resources devoted to caring for returning vets have clearly taxed the system. As Solo notes, the only time people realize you’ve been to war is if you’re physically maimed. And because the mental and emotional effects of war typically aren’t as visible as the physical ones, they’re treated more like an unfavorable weakness that doesn’t merit the same degree of serious concern.

As all three men try to keep themselves together, their condition slowly deteriorates. They struggle to obtain the support and treatment they need. And they find they’re no longer sure of whether they can really function outside the Army’s strictures, but going back isn’t an option either.

Thank You for Your Service makes a solemn debut in a world where veterans are political props

My screening of Thank You for Your Service was on Monday, October 23, the same day that President Donald Trump used Twitter to call a Gold Star widow a liar. I emerged from the theater to see that she’d responded by appearing on national news — just one day after her husband’s funeral — and the consonance between what I’d just seen on the big screen and what I was seeing on my smartphone screen was striking.

What Thank You for Your Service so effectively chronicles is the way veterans are too often used as political props, willingly or not; they’re praised and thanked, but also trotted out and forced to slog through a veterans affairs system that would rather they just quietly rejoin society without asking for too much, or else go back to the battlefield, where they can’t complicate the patriotism of those who idealize it.

Haley Bennett and Miles Teller in Thank You For Your Service
Haley Bennett and Miles Teller in Thank You For Your Service.
Universal Pictures

This isn’t a new plot point for films about American soldiers, but Thank You for Service handles it with such humanity and simplicity that it feels unimpeachable. (That the film’s characters are based on real men makes the indictment all the more searing.)

A couple of years ago, a movie like this would have felt apolitical, or at least like a bipartisan critique of America’s long history of disrespecting veterans who don’t fit its triumphalist narrative. But in 2017, at a time when the president seems largely interested in veterans only when whey provide a publicity hook for his beefs with NFL players or the media, it’s hard to view Thank You for Service through an apolitical lens.

And that’s to our shame. While Thank You for Your Service doesn’t always live up to its source material, a film like this ought to prompt thoughtful consideration on both a personal and a broader public level of the resources and compassion we extend to the troops we so performatively “support” whenever it fits our political narrative. But if it’s difficult to view the story outside a partisan agenda, it blunts the film’s opportunity to deliver its most powerful statement.

That’s fitting for a movie about veterans themselves being sidelined. But it also reminds us — in no small part because Thank You for Your Service renders its characters with such profound empathy — how important it is to try.

Thank You for Your Service opens in theaters on October 26.