The psychological wounds of war hit home in the compelling drama “Thank You for Your Service,” the true story of Army staff Sgt. Adam Schumann based on the best-selling book by David Finkel. Miles Teller is completely convincing as Adam, an Iraq War veteran who returns home from the war with a pair of fellow soldier friends who can’t quite admit they’re suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), until it becomes almost immediately clear that he nor his friends can shake the chilling after effects of the war.
The problem is, when Adam tries to get help for one of his friends, he discovers a Veteran’s Affairs system that’s supposed to help soldiers with their mental health needs is woefully ill-equipped to meet their needs, which for a group of soldiers who’s in desperate need of help, puts their life in danger.
Adapted for the screen and directed by Jason Hall, “Thank You for Your Service” is a heartbreaking movie and a real eye-opener that further expands what we got a look at with “American Sniper” (which was also adapted by Hall) — which is keying in on the difficulties many servicemen and servicewomen have trying to reintegrate into civilian life following their deployments in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Thank You for Your Service” is a very intense film that’s very difficult to watch at times because the grim reality of narrative seems to offer no clear solution. And while the issues plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs is one that can’t be solved overnight, the film ends on a note of hope, which with any luck will inspire viewers to raise their voices to Congress, and ultimately get those who served our country the respect and services they deserve.
It’s not often where you can see a film that changes your perspective on a single but often-used phrase, and there’s no question that “Thank You for Your Service” is one of them. It’s a phrase that people often say to veterans of any war when you meet them, yet, after seeing a true-life film based on the experiences of an Iraq War veteran — Army Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann — they take on a different sort of meaning.
It’s a film that, given the hardships veterans endure when they return home, makes the phrase “thank you for your service” almost feel like an empty gesture. At least in the context of this film, it feels like ill-equipped system that greets them when they return home is in some ways thankless for their service, and ultimately, thankless for the sacrifices they made while carrying out the duties for their country.
So, what should we be saying to soldi
ers or veterans when we great them? In a recent phone conversation from Chicago with Schumann and Miles Teller, who plays the soldier in the film, the answer is simple.
“I think, ‘Welcome home’ is the best thing you can say to anybody,” Schumann said.
Teller added that there are other ways to respond to veterans, too; something that he gained insight by working on the film.
“If you want to just say one thing, say ‘Welcome home’ as Adam said, but people can also be asking, ‘What branch are you in?’ ‘Where did you deploy?’ or ‘Where did you serve?'” Teller said.
Teller realizes that sometimes asking about military service is a difficult subject to broach with veterans, particularly for those who served in wars prior to Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, having friends that have served in the military and by forging a friendship with Schumann, Teller is glad to see that films like “American Sniper” and “Thank You for Your Service” are finally addressing the devastating effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury (TBI), because it effectively opens the conversation about how to get soldiers the help they need as they integrate back into civilian life after serving in a war.
“The older generation of veterans wanted to deal with things in a masculine way; to be tough and to be thick-skinned and not talk about it,” Teller said. “Now, we’re just learning as these studies are going out and putting terms on it — posttraumatic stress and TBI — and with the amount of suicides (we’re finding out that not talking about it) doesn’t work. These guys have a lot of open wounds and I think as a nation, yes, we haven’t done enough in terms of welcoming soldiers back. So yes, a conversation is better than an empty sentence.”
Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, “Thank You for Your Service,” chronicles Schumann’s return home from the Iraq War and his inability to reacclimate to civilian life, which has a particularly tough effect on his wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), and ultimately, their young family. Sadly, Schumann isn’t alone in his troubles — two of his friends and fellow service members (played by Beulah Koale) have also returned and are facing difficult circumstances — and much of it is rooted in a specific tragic event that occurred when the three were serving in the war. Compounding the problem is a Veterans Affairs system back home that is under-equipped to meet their mental health needs.
Even though Schumann first confronted his story in the film’s source material, the David Finkel book “Thank You for Your Service,” the veteran admits that it is still extremely difficult to watch the film. Schumann not only commends Teller’s work in the film to bring his harrowing tale to life, but also writer-director Jason Hall. Hall, who also tapped into the nerve of the subject matter with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “American Sniper,” very much did the same with “Thank You for Your Service,” Schumann said.
“The movie was extremely gut-wrenching to watch,” Schumann said. “I think my mom said it best, which was, ‘I feel like I just went through two hours of surgery without anesthesia.’ And that’s what it felt like. I was crying and laughing, and I think that’s a testament to how well Miles acted, and how well Jason relayed what was in the book into the script and direct it in such a way that grabbed our very core. … It’s therapeutic to see the movie, and the more I see it the more I talk about it, the better I get. It’s been a positive experience all around.”
Teller, who has given his all both physically and mentally in many of his films, said “Thank You for Your Service” required the same sort of commitment; but one that was particularly resonant because he was playing a real-life person he had access to.
“If I’m challenged with something, that mean’s the character I’m playing went through a lot of stuff and has taken an emotional toll on them,” Teller said. “Playing Adam required all of it, the physical, emotional and the mental aspects.”
Ultimately, having starred in such films as the Best Picture Oscar-nominated “Whiplash,” the true-life boxing drama “Bleed for This” and most recently, the true-life firefighter drama “Only the Brave,” said it’s a privilege to act in any film, particularly those that address real-life issues.
“There’s a lot of film and TV out there where a lot of situations the characters are in aren’t too far removed from your own life. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to work on some projects that have absolutely incredible stories of characters being put under extraordinary circumstances,” Teller said. “I got to put through a boot camp, I got to talk with vets and was welcomed into their homes. I got this incredible experience of what it would be like to do this. For me, to get the kind of training that I’ve had and to get to try on all these different hats, as it were, for these characters has really been a blessing.”
Note: “Thank You for Your Service” studios Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures are offering free tickets to a special screening of the film Thursday night for up to 10,000 active military servicemembers and veterans. Find out more at https://www.thankyouforyourservicemovie.com.
As Veterans Day fast approaches, a new film that examines the true-life plight of soldiers returning home from the Iraq War is about to open in theaters — and thankfully for moviegoers and most importantly, veteran viewers, “Thank You for Your Service” was completed under the watchful eye of filmmaker Jason Hall.
Hall, who was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for adapting late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s novel “American Sniper” for the big screen in 2014, adapted the screenplay of David Finkel’s book “Thank You for Your Service,” and was also handed the director’s reigns for the project by Steven Spielberg. Considering that Spielberg first intended to direct the film himself, installing Hall at the helm of the gut-wrenching drama says a lot about the legendary filmmaker’s confidence in the first-time director.
Clearly Spielberg knew through his developmen
t of the screenplays of both “American Sniper” (which Clint Eastwood directed) and “Thank You for Your Service” that Hall had keen insight into the struggles of veterans trying to re-adjust to civilian life back home after the service, and specifically relating to the latter, how under-equipped the U.S. government is to meet the mental health needs of its solders.
“The thing I learned with Chris Kyle was that even the heroes are carrying this home. And while it’s one in five or one in four that come home with some version of trauma, the services we provide just aren’t enough,” Hall said in a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles. “As for ‘Thank You for Your Service,’ the depiction of what David Finkel did in the book was so frustratingly harrowing to me. I just couldn’t believe it, so I started looking into it.”
Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, “Thank You for Your Service” tells the compelling true-life story of Army Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), who returns home along with two fellow solider friends from the Iraq War, only to soon discover that none of them can handle the prolonged effects of war and a specific combat tragedy that changed all of their lives.
Hall said Finkel’s book came to him while he was adapting the screenplay for “American Sniper” for director Spielberg, who eventually handed the project over to his fellow filmmaker Clint Eastwood. So, by the time “American Sniper” hit theaters, Hall said he started talking with VA psychologists and started visiting VA hospitals around LA, while consulting former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald as well.
While some may want to classify “Thank You for Your Service” as a war film, Hall — whose grandfather, uncle and half-brother all served in the military — said it’s not so much a war film as it is a film about how soldiers deal with the effects of war.
“I think the effects of war are a battle of their own, in as much as the war continues to echo in, around and in front of these veterans,” Hall said. “It wounded them, and it continues to inflict them. So, for me, it was about finding a way to bring the immediacy of those moments to the film and examine what happens in the ‘after war.’ That’s what David Finkel calls it in his book — the ‘after war.’ There are depictions in this movie of life or death right here in America, on the home front, that we wouldn’t normally consider to be the battlefield.”
While we discover how stressed Veterans Affairs is in trying to handle the influx of thousands of soldiers returning home with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in “Thank You for Your Service,” Hall said the point of the movie isn’t to pin blame on one entity.
“While the services are faulty, the reality is, the VA is still the best place for soldiers to go for trauma and for help,” Hall said. “You can’t do ChoiceCare and go to your doctor in Beverly Hills and tell him you saw some things in the war that are really troubling you. He’s not going to know what to do with that. So, as bad as it is, it’s what we got to work with and we have to find a way to make it work.”
So, while the government may be an easy scapegoat when it comes to meeting soldiers’ mental health needs — yet there’s no denying they are woefully understaffed to handle the immense caseload — Hall said the solution is up to us to rally for change to the flawed system and culture for a one that the soldiers deserve , especially given the amount of sacrifice they’ve made for our country.
“At a certain point it’s up to us. At a certain point it’s up to society to find a welcome these guys back in, because it’s not just the VA,” Hall said. “Some of what we see is dictated by the way they are welcomed back into society and the way that we perceive them — not only as heroes, but as wounded.”
Sometimes, Hall said, soldiers have been affected by war in ways most people wouldn’t expect.
“Some of these guys don’t even get out of the armory and they’re messed up by the institutionalization by the enterprise of war, or the repetitive nature of firing all these rounds, with something thrust against your cheekbone in a way that it disturbs your brain” Hall said. “There’s a lot that goes into this that we don’t fully comprehend, and certainly the VA and military didn’t comprehend going into the war or what they were going to have to deal with when these guys came home.”
Naturally, Hall depended on Schumann as much as he could to get the details of his story right, and is thankful that the veteran was willing to open himself up to reveal some very painful chapters in his life.
“To have Adam around, to have someone around as your source of all of this, to be so emotionally accessible and so emotionally articulate was so helpful,” Hall said. “Adam was there at the starting line. This guy was heroic in battle, but then he came home and did something equally or more heroic in revealing himself — not only with what he experienced in the war, but what he continued to experience because of what he had seen, done, gone through and lost over there.
“To me that was the most heroic thing that anyone could have done in that entire war — to come home and reveal themselves, which is not something you’re trained to do,” Hall added. “Adam took it upon himself to do that because he knew it was going to help somebody else.”
While committing to a movie project is generally a crap shoot for actors, it took little convincing to get Thomas Haden Church to enlist in the new military-themed family drama “Max.” The military has played an important role the Oscar nominated actor’s life since the very beginning.
“I come from a military background — my dad was in the Army Air Corps during World War II and then the armored infantry after that” Church told me in a recent call from Los Angeles. “He went in 1943 and didn’t retire until 1982, so since my dad had such a long career, I was always around somebody that demanded the highest integrity and respect for everything that the military did.”
And while Church, who turned 55 a week ago, never served in the military himself, he was ready to go if needed.
“I was in one of the last age groups that had to register for the draft in the late ’70s, and there was a real point of honor in doing so for my dad,” Church said. “It was a ritualistic passage into manhood. He accompanied me to the courthouse in south Texas and wanted to be with me to register for potential service in the American military. For my dad, it was always about honor and allegiance to your country. ”
In “Max,” opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, Church plays Ray Wincott, a wounded Desert Storm veteran and father to Kyle (Robbie Amell), a Marine in Afghanistan who is the handler of a military working dog (MWD) named Max. The bond between the duo is shattered, though, when Kyle is killed in battle, traumatizing Max to the point that he can no longer operate in the military.
Max is then adopted by Kyle’s family at home in Texas, where the soldier’s younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), seems to have formed a connection with the MWD. However, transition is rough for the Wincott family, since Justin can’t seem to live up to Ray’s expectations — a situation exacerbated by the tragic loss of Kyle.
Directed by Boaz Yakin, “Max” is the second military-themed film released by Warner Bros. in past six months, behind the Best Picture Oscar-nominated film “American Sniper.” And while “Max” is mainly a family adventure drama and “American Sniper” is a hard-hitting biopic, Church is glad that the studio is releasing films that not only show the lives of American soldiers, but the effects war has on the people at home.
But while “Max” is unlikely to encounter the firestorm of criticism received by “American Sniper” during its record-setting release — particularly from notable actors and filmmakers in Hollywood — Church, who was born in California but raised in Texas, said he’s ready to stand up against anybody talking smack about the military or films about the people who serve.
“I live in rural Texas, and needless to say, a lot of that flack is not tolerated,” Church said with a laugh. “If you remember at the beginning of 2014 when ‘Lone Survivor’ came out — (the film’s subject) Marcus Luttrell is a Texan, not unlike Chris Kyle — and that story is not without controversy as well.”
Church said that while “Max” is more of a family-oriented film than “American Sniper” or “Lone Survivor,” it still tries to address some of the same issues, but of a character you wouldn’t expect.
“It’s about what happens in the intensity of firefight, and how soldiers — including a war dog — respond in the mortal danger of a firefight. How they respond is really a measure of their training and their character, and their ability to defend themselves in their unit,” Church said. “What our movie addresses is the loss of a soldier, and the other soldier at his side returning home. Even though it’s a dog, he still has to deal with all of the sadness and the emotional recovery after the loss of a loved one. Our characters don’t know if anybody loved our son more than Max. He was his companion and his training partner, but also the solider at his side to ensure his safety.”
Needless to say, Church developed a love and respect for Carlos, the four-legged actor who played Max.
“With a Belgian Malinois — a war dog — they bring such intensity and ferocity, but at the same time, an intelligence to be trained and develop skills to find weaponry and the enemy to save American lives,” Church said. “But what you get with that intelligence and high-speed intensity, when they turn it on, you also get — at least in my understanding and experience making the movie — an emotional complexity with these dogs that a lot of people are not aware of. I don’t think a lot of people understand how far back American service dogs in the military go back, and how relevant they are right now in 2015 — chiefly Afghanistan and other areas of conflict around the world — where American soldiers are involved.”
While Church — whose rich resume includes TV’s “Wings” and “Ned and Stacey,” and the films “Tombstone,” “Sideways” (which earned him his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), “Spider-Man 3” and “Killer Joe,” among many others — worked exclusively with a Belgian Malinois, he’s not necessarily a dog or cat person in real life.
“I’m both of them,” Church said, laughing. “I’m an animal guy. I have a ranch, and even a pet deer that’s sort of my most loyal companion.”
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers