Thanks Don’t Cure PTSD

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, about World War II veterans readjusting to civilian life, won seven Academy Awards in 1946, including for best picture. Writer and director Jason Hall’s new film, Thank You for Your Service, takes a similarly scathing look at Iraq War vets returning stateside in 2007, during President George W. Bush’s ultra-violent surge.

Based on a true story as recounted in David Finkel’s book, the 108-minute film unblinkingly depicts Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, physical disabilities, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, employment woes, suicide, homelessness, nightmares, crime, a Kafkaesque Veterans Administration bureaucracy, hallucinations and more. Indeed, Hall’s harrowing, hard-hitting drama could be titled The Worst Years of Their Lives.

Unlike Clint Eastwood’s 2014 American Sniper, which Hall co-wrote, Service doesn’t glorify war and those who fight it. Although the film opens during a deadly mission in Iraq (with the inevitable flashback), most of the story is set on the home front. Its vets are damaged goods, ravaged by improvised explosive devices and other urban warfare tactics deployed by the Iraqi insurgents.

Film protagonist Adam Schumann (Miles Teller, who so convincingly portrayed a student drummer in 2014’s tense Whiplash), specializes in “riding shotgun”—scanning the roads for IEDs while his armored vehicle careens down dusty, narrow routes where danger may lurk camouflaged behind any pile of garbage. Back in the USA, Schumann must pick up the pieces of his life shattered by PTSD, as he struggles to be a good father to an infant son and young daughter, and husband to Saskia (Haley Bennett), who pleads with her woeful warrior to share his inner demons with her.

In a surprising turn, Service provides one of the most realistic portrayals of Polynesians in screen history. In most South Seas Cinema, such as Mutiny on the Bounty, Pacific Islanders are depicted as happy-go-lucky residents of tropical paradises. But Service shatters those celluloid stereotypes, with Samoan actor Beulah Koale (who has had a recurring role on Hawaii Five-O) playing PTSD-wracked Tausolo.

The American Samoan character is tellingly called “Solo,” as if to emphasize his inner isolation and disconnection. He is a jangle of nerves with a Swiss cheese-like attention span and memory so devastated by his deployments in Iraq that even the Army won’t take him back for another tour of duty.

Solo’s pregnant wife Alea is portrayed by prominent Polynesian actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, who burst on screen as the 12-year-old star of 2002’s New Zealand-set Whale Rider, and went on to appear in the Star Wars film franchise and HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. Alea must navigate Solo’s inexplicable eruptions and unpredictability, in an echo of the 1994 New Zealand domestic abuse drama, Once Were Warriors.

But troubled as Solo is, he’s no mere brute—in one of the film’s most moving moments, he rescues a canine left to die after a dogfight. Schumann helps Solo stitch the pit bull back together. Perhaps these fallen warriors identify with the wounded dog. In a cameo, comedienne Amy Schumer displays a depth one might not suspect as a grieving war widow who strives to free Schumann from the grief and guilt that threaten to overwhelm him.

While Service is no Pentagon propaganda film, it does viewers a disservice by not providing any broader context. The WWII vets in Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives feel forlorn and lost at times as they try to reintegrate into civilian life. But at least these veterans have the inner satisfaction of knowing their sacrifices were for the greater good—the fight against fascism.

But what of the Iraq vets, sent thousands of miles from home on the pretext of Weapons of Mass Destruction, invading a country that had not attacked us? What kind of solace can they take from their loss of life and limb, fighting an unnecessary war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and opened a Pandora’s Box to ISIS?

It’s uncanny that Thank You for Your Service opens as President “Bone Spur” — who, during the Vietnam War, used his wealth and connections to avoid military service with multiple deferments — is embroiled in bickering with a pregnant war widow. Are soldiers like Schumann, Solo and La David Johnson really “fighting for their country”? Or are they fighting for the ruling class and their policymakers who continue to wage perpetual wars that Congress never declared and American citizens never voted for?

The Pentagon may lavish taxpayer dollars on endless wars, but once these warriors are broken and no longer of use, the VA doesn’t have the funds to spend on them, as Service bitterly reveals. But overall, the movie misses the big picture of Washington’s imperial policies that turn unemployed youth desperate for jobs into cannon fodder. It focuses on the micro and misses the macro.

Ed Rampell is a film historian and critic based in Los Angeles. Rampell is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and he co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. This originally appeared at

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2017

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