Actor turned writer-director Jason Hall (he scripted “American Sniper”) returns to Iraq War veteran subject matter with “Thank You for Your Service,” an oddly unaffecting portrait of damaged soldiers trying to break back into civilian life.
He goes for veracity over novelty, telling an over-familiar story of traumatized men, survivor’s guilt and their struggles to make sense of a world that no longer involves hostile natives, IEDs, baking hot sun and endless sand. And it’s so unsurprising that when I tell you there are three veterans we meet, in combat and back at home, you can guess one of them will kill himself, one of them will be hellbent on going back and one will break just enough to recognize that he needs treatment.
It takes nothing away from the real men whose lives this based-on-a-true-story film is based on to say that by leaning on the over-familiar, by not getting more of an emotionally available turn from leading man Miles Teller (“Whiplash,””Only the Brave”), Hall has created a movie more intent on pandering to the sentimental than informing.
Teller is Sgt. Adam “Schu” Schuman, one of a trio of Topeka boys who went to war and came back men. We meet him on one of his most traumatic days in combat, when his instincts and intuition tell him there’s a roadside bomb ahead, only to see his convoy ambushed when they take an alternate route.
Solo (Beulah Koale) and Waller (Joe Cole) are on the plane with him as they return, to an enthusiastic welcome, to The Real World. Waller’s supposed to get married. Solo’s wife (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is pregnant. And Schuman’s got a wife (Haley Bennett), a daughter he barely knows and an infant he is a little slow to remember he has, waiting on him at home.
Each man copes, as best he can, with this re-adjustment. Each man, facing financial strain, post traumatic stress, disappointments and a lack of a workable plan to re-enter the workforce, fails.
Schuman may be content to get home with “all my limbs, all my pieces intact.” But he has a hard time facing the widow (Amy Schumer) of a comrade who didn’t get home. Solo, who can’t get past “I don’t belong here,” gets mixed up with guys he might have run with back when he was a teenager. Waller? His fiance moved out and emptied their accounts.
Hall zeroes in on military rituals — the unit roll-call after a soldier has been killed, dogtags, a military funeral back home. The guys slip back into their familiar friendship when their favorite song (it’s 2007) blasts out of a jukebox. Bennett does a wonderful job with her best scene, telling her soldier “Don’t underestimate me. I’m tougher than you are,” in an effort to get him to open up.
But lacking his “Sniper” director Clint Eastwood’s pen to X-out unnecessary scenes, overly obvious dialogue and cliched situations (just because “this really happened” does not mean you have to include it in the story), Hall’s movie bogs down.
And as familiar as all this ground is — “Stop-Loss,” “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “Home of the Brave” got there first — Teller gives us too little for the emotional catharsis you want and expect from a story on this subject.
A few carefully observed rituals, good casting and noble intentions don’t make up for a morose tone and general lack of surprise. In the end, “Service” doesn’t do its characters or its subject justice.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material and brief nudity
Cast: Miles Teller, Haley Bennett, Beulah Koale, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Amy Schumer, Joe Cole
Credits: Written and directed by Jason Hall, based on a David Finkel book. A — release.
Running time: 1:48