Christian Toto is the proprietor of Hollywood in Toto. He posted his year-end 10-best list yesterday, with Thank You For Your Service leading the parade. Of the movies I saw in 2017, Thank You For Service was the only one that moved me, shook me up, taught me something I didn’t know and made me want to learn more, all while increasing my gratitude and respect for the service to which we pay tribute in the stock slogan that gives the movie its title.
Christian writes: “The film’s depiction of soldiers adjusting to civilian life proved brutal. We all need to see a movie like Service to understand the pressures they face once the shooting stops. Writer/director Jason Hall, who wrote American Sniper, expertly captured the emotions of the soldier re-integrating back into society.”
What a movie. “And yet,” he notes, “the movie tanked at the box office, topping out at a sad $9 million in U.S. sales.” It was a commercial flop.
I found Phillip Carter’s detailed review of the film for Slate true to what I saw in it: “Thank You offers a window into lives that most Americans never see, providing an almost visceral sense for what it was like to fight in Iraq and then come home to your afterwar.”
The film is based on Washington Post editor David Finkel’s book of the same title. It’s the second of two books Finkel wrote about the soldiers he met while embedded with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion during the surge; the first is The Good Soldiers.
I have hesitated to write about the film before I finished reading the book. I have a way to go. I’m only in chapter 5, but have been surprised to discover that some of the most haunting elements of the film are drawn from the book.
What’s wrong with the film? Among other things, for dramatic purposes, it depicts the Army as a villain. The Army denies the disorders with which the men struggle to come to terms. While seeking VA benefits in one scene, for example, one of the film’s protagonists is instructed by an officer that he shouldn’t be claiming disability because other soldiers might see his example and crack too. I didn’t believe it and found it annoying.
The veterans’ difficulty finding prompt and adequate medical care through the VA (featured in the film) is nevertheless a familiar plight. Reading Finkel’s book, one sees in the person of Army vice chief of staff Peter Chiarelli (now retired) how the Army itself has struggled to come to terms with the stress disorders that the film memorably brings to life. One leaves the film wanting to learn more and do right by those whom we formulaically thank for their service.
I want to add this note. Pathway Home is a residential treatment facility that figures prominently in the story. Reading the New York Times review of Thank You, I learned of the documentary Of Men and War (reviewed briefly here), which takes place almost entirely at Pathway Home. At the moment it is posted on YouTube and otherwise available.