Thank You For Your Service: American Sniper writer misses in directorial debut

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C

Thank You For Your Service marks the directorial debut of Jason Hall, who wrote Clint Eastwood’s 2014 hit, American Sniper. Both films, adapted from non-fiction books, involve Iraq War soldiers dealing with post-combat traumatic stress.  

The current film, based on David Finkel’s book of the same title, follows a trio of soldiers struggling to adapt back to civilian life in Kansas. And while Hall’s approach is less controversial than Eastwood’s arguably jingoistic film, it’s also a whole lot less skillful.

In his second tough guy role this week (he’s also one of the firemen in Only the Brave), Miles Teller plays Adam Schumann, a sergeant, struggling with survivor’s guilt over a friend (Scott Haze) whom he failed to save. 

 Haley Bennett outacts Miles Teller just by looking at him

Haley Bennett outacts Miles Teller just by looking at him

Teller is fine in the part though, to my taste, his movie-star cocky charm undermines the character’s supposed vulnerability. Or, perhaps the problem is simply that he is out-acted by Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train) who plays his wife, a young woman, struggling to take care of her restless man-child, as well as their kids (including a baby whose name Adam keeps forgetting).

Other female characters get short attention: Amy Schumer, turned brunette and without make-up (to show she’s serious), is cast as a grieving widow who gets two speeches, near the beginning and end of the film. 

Meanwhile, Keisha Castle-Hughes, the teen star of 2002’s Maori drama, Whale Rider, alternates between supporting and cowering from her husband, Solo Aieti (Beulah Koale). Solo, a Samoan-born Green Card soldier, has suffered brain trauma from an explosion. But despite living in a mental haze, he’s determined to sign up again.

Finally, there’s Will Waller (Joe Cole), the kind of too-sincere guy the others like to rag on, who arrives home to find his fiancé has taken their baby, cleared out all the possessions and won’t return his calls. He sets out to confront her. Let’s just say that Will’s adaptation to civilian life is the least successful of all.

Thank You For Your Service is a worthy and competent docudrama when it focuses on the grindingly mundane struggle of coming home: The overflowing waiting rooms at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the apologetic speeches from the doctors, counsellors and clerks about the nine-month backlog of an estimated 500,000 mentally-damaged American war veterans. 

But this outrage is blunted by the  familiarity:  We all know the billions governments spend on arming and glorifying the military has no correlation to its treatment of living war casualties. 

The larger problem is Hall's clumsy dramatic execution: Scenes are typically either too on-the-nose (“I can take anything but quiet!”) or show Hall's misguided attempts to jack up visual interest.  There’s a bar scene of the three men drunkenly singing and dancing drunk to Haddaway’s kitschy 1993 hit What Is Love. Yes, the demonstration of their boisterous brothers-in-arms is obvious enough, but surely Hall have found a tune than didn’t instantly evoke the SNL spin-off comedy A Night at the Roxbury

Also, there really must be a better way to shoot flashbacks than have dead or wounded soldiers suddenly pop up, like horror movie ghosts. In the most jarring example, while Adam is making love to his wife, in her new negligee, the banging of the bed triggers a battle hallucination. Talk about defusing your improvised explosive device.

The least believable, most racially-dubious subplot sees Solo searching for some Ecstasy (MDMA) to relieve his post-traumatic stress disorder. He ends up in the African-American part of town. After rescuing a mangled pit-bull that lost a dog fight, he agrees to do a contract killing for Ecstasy pills. Seriously? Couldn’t he just locate a late-night dance club?  We’re left with a feeling that, in the last third of the movie, Hall realized he realized he had a war movie that was low on action so he decided to throw in a fire fight.

Thank You For Your Service. Written and directed by Hall. Starring: Miles Teller, Beaulah Koale, Haley Bennet and Amy Schumer. Thank You For Your Service is showing at Famous Players Canada Square, Imagine Carleton Cinema, Cineplex Varsity, Cineplex Yonge-Eglinton and Cineplex Yonge-Dundas.