“Service” shines a light on veterans’ hidden lives

Photo courtesy of DreamWorks

Jason Hall’s directorial debut, “Thank You for Your Service,” stars Miles Teller (“Whiplash”) as a war hero who, upon returning home, struggles to refamiliarize himself with civilian life.

In theatres Oct. 27, the film is based on a nonfiction book of the same name by David Finkel, who spent months following and reporting on the soldiers of the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment.

In creating the “Thank You for Your Service,” Hall wanted to illustrate veterans’ struggle: the struggle to belong, to explain and to rebuild. Despite being an integral aspect of American society, soldiers are often overlooked once they return home from war.

Everyone knows the buzzwords: PTSD, service, honor, bravery. Everyone knows to say, “Thank you for your service.” But do Americans know what they are really thanking them for?

Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) was a well-liked staff sergeant in Iraq. At home, he’s a “normal,” unemployed father of two. Living in a limbo of flashbacks, nostalgia, depression and the present, he attempts to rediscover a sense of belonging and purpose.

As Hall explained, “The family expects them to be the same people they’ve sent off to war — the dad, the husband — but there’s this shadow life, there in the periphery.”

The damaging effects of that lack of belonging are illustrated most sharply by the character of Will Waller (Joe Cole, “Secret in Their Eyes”). Waller is the only totally fictionalized character, and Hall explained that this addition was necessary to represent all possible paths that veterans may take in their lives.

“We’re telling the story of three veterans coming home, and I looked at that as … one soldier making three different decisions,” Hall said. Waller, devastated by his personal circumstances, felt the utmost isolation and took the most definitive action: suicide.

For the other two veterans, Adam Schumann and his closest friend, Tausolo “Solo” Aeiti (Beulah Koale, “The Last Saint”), perhaps the only thing that keeps them going is their connection to each other.

Gradually, viewers realize that despite the horrible events and immense burden of war, these men felt more at home in Iraq with their band of brothers than they do in American civilian life. This startling fact could not have been developed without Teller’s artful and poignant silences, during which his eyes and face express more than words could.

Teller, who was nearly killed in a car accident when he was twenty, said that his own near-death experience aided him in portraying the veterans: “I guess in a way I was fortunate [that] I had some real-life stuff and didn’t have to imagine what it would be like.”

To fill in the blanks, the actors were put through a boot camp with a SEAL Team Six trainer before filming, which also helped to boost camaraderie among the actors.

But most veterans agree that recovery from post-traumatic stress is far more challenging than the boot camps were. A key theme of the movie is that silence is not the answer, no matter how awful it may be to discuss the trauma.

Rehashing the past is painful, but “you have to bring it up. It’s just going to stew in you… You have to find someone who’s willing to bear a little bit of that burden for you,” real-life Schumann said.

As Hall said, “they slip back into society, put on civilian clothes and these heroes are walking around among us who have been through extraordinary things,” and civilians are none the wiser. The point of the film is to fill in that gap of societal understanding.

Though it only traces the paths of a few men, “Thank You for Your Service” has the ability to represent millions of veterans.

“It’s my belief that if you make something super personal, it becomes universal because the more personal it is, the more human it is,” Hall said. “You get to the core of the human experience that way.”

The movie was not created as an entertainment piece or a typical Hollywood war film. It was meant to be the “most real and authentic and intense” experience of war conflict that an ordinary person could receive in the comfort of their chair.

Somehow, despite being predominantly set in Kansas (and filmed in Atlanta), viewers will leave the theatre feeling like they have been to Iraq.

However, this feeling may only apply to men. Women in the film were relegated to the typical wife-and-mother role. The primary female characters are exclusively wives of the male veterans, who are the real focus, and the few other females are disposable: extras, a Veterans Association counselor and other unimportant roles.

In defense of this choice, Hall hid behind the authenticity, claiming he was simply following the facts as reported in Finkel’s book — but the invention of Will Waller’s character begs to differ. If another male veteran could be fictionalized, why not a female one?

Moreover, specifically for these veterans, Hall may have sacrificed a bit of authenticity for the sake of a rosy, feel-good ending — the dream house, the white picket fence, the happy nuclear family.

The reality is that there may not be a cure to PTSD, at least not yet, and dealing with it in the meantime is an intensely difficult test of patience and resilience for all those involved.

Aside from those flaws, however, “Thank You for Your Service” is a unique, enlightening film. By shining a light on veterans’ shadow lives, Hall aims to deliver a message of hope.

Through understanding the sacrifice that all armed forces make, viewers can reach true gratitude, and perhaps that cliché phrase can regain its meaning.