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How ‘Thank You For Your Service’ Builds On The Returning Soldier Movie Genre


The subgenre of movies dealing with military veterans returning home is fairly limited. On the one hand are the action films featuring pumped-up actors portraying veterans who come home with a skill-set coincidentally perfect for taking out homegrown bad guys. On the other hand are movies depicting the cast and crew’s political agenda. Seldom do such films rise above either popcorn entertainment or agitprop.

“Thank You for Your Service,” released in late October, is one of those few films featuring little battlefield action, no barroom chop-sockey leading eventually to mega-kabooms wherein military-acquired skills save mostly clueless civilian butts in small-town America, while dispensing with antiwar agitprop.

Further, it’s a serious movie that doesn’t bog down in its own self-importance. Wonderfully acted, written, photographed, and directed, “Thank You for Your Service” is the post-traumatic stress disorder movie veterans of U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve. Yes, it’s a PTSD public-service announcement of sorts, but one that eschews didacticism to focus on characters and interpersonal relationships. Imagine that!

What the Film Is About

“Thank You for Your Service” focuses on the plight of PTSD veterans rather than the political choices that sent them overseas in the first place. The directorial debut of actor and screenwriter Jason Hill (nominated for an Academy Award for his “American Sniper” script), the movie features remarkable acting turns by Miles Teller, a radiant Haley Bennett, Beulah Koale, and Keisha Castle-Hughes.

The movie also features an admirable supporting performance by Amy Schumer as the widowed wife of a fallen soldier. Returning to his mid-1980s “Born in the USA” theme of supporting veterans of unpopular wars, Bruce Springsteen contributes the sonorous drones of his “Freedom Cadence” over the closing credits. The soundtrack is by Thomas Newman (with a nice addition of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”). Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“Fury,” “End of Watch”) provides a subdued palette that somehow and miraculously manages not to overshadow the beaming sunlight of the relationships between the story’s protagonists.

While not perfect in every regard (several plot developments come across as strictly mechanical McGuffins), “Thank You for Your Service” invites comparisons to other entries in the returning military veteran subgenre. Listed in no particular order below are other RMV films, ranked in comparison to “Thank You for Your Service.”

A Survey of Other Films In the Genre

“Coming Home.” What goes wrong in this 1978 opus is too numerous to list in this space, although the ever-present boom-mic hovering over a crucial dramatic scene stands out. Director Hal Ashby attempts to prove his anti-Vietnam bona fides to such an extent that all sympathies are directed toward characters portrayed by Jane Fonda and Jon Voight.

Fonda is newly “woke” to the politics of the conflict by her volunteer work in a Veteran Affairs hospital, where she meets paraplegic veteran Voight. Meanwhile, Fonda’s husband, played by the great Bruce Dern, remains enlisted despite suffering PTSD (depicted by the actor in his patented over-the-top, psycho-bird fashion). Unfortunately, the audience only roots for the Fonda-Voight romance as an acknowledgment of their own implied morally superior pacifism while merely shrugging when Dern strips naked and swims out to sea to the strains of Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was.”

“Born on the Fourth of July.” Oliver Stone’s 1989 adaptation of Ron Kovic’s autobiography of the same name (also a major inspiration for Springsteen’s admirable work on behalf of military veterans and their families) also focuses mainly on antiwar politics. Besides featuring one of Tom Cruise’s best performances, the film also boasts (counting from memory) at least three Baldwin brothers in the cast as well as a standout portrayal by Willem Dafoe.

“Who’ll Stop the Rain?” Adapted by Judith Stone from Robert Stone’s novel “Dog Soldiers,” this Karel Reisz-directed 1978 gem stars Nick Nolte, Michael Moriarty, and Tuesday Weld alongside such television stalwarts Richard Masur, Anthony Zerbe, and Charles Haid. Both the book and the film are doozies depicting the squalor rampant in U.S. culture while young men put their lives on the line for vague purposes in Southeast Asia.

Moral ambiguity abounds as a stoic Nolte agrees to assist Moriarty and his wife Weld move heroin from Vietnam to dealers in California. Along the way, they encounter wealthy Hollywood denizens eager to slum as smack tourists in addition to bumbling gangsters. While PTSD isn’t mentioned either in the book or film, its presence is indicated by the broken moral compass of Nolte’s character. Those smack tourists? Nolte intentionally overdoses them.

“The Best Years of Our Lives.” This 1946 William Wyler-directed classic is the gold standard by which all other RMV films are measured. Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, and Hoagy Carmichael, the film also stars non-actor Harold Russell in a featured role as Homer Parrish.

Wyler had Parrish’s role rewritten from a RMV suffering from PTSD to a sailor who has lost both hands in a fire. Watching Russell use his real-life hooks to place the wedding band on his bride’s finger at the film’s conclusion is one of the most endearingly heartbreaking cinematic scenes of all time. The PTSD storyline became background for Dana Andrews’ character, a former Air Force bombardier who suffers from regular nightmares in addition to a dead-end job as a soda jerk, unhappy marriage to party girl Mayo, and unrequited love for Wright, the daughter of March and Loy.