Miles Teller, star of Thank You For Your Service, the new film directed by American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall, finds himself in the midst of an inspired moment. He’s co-starring in a pair of real-life narratives about ordinary men in extraordinary situations, harsh and potentially deadly environments where they have everything to lose.
As a featured performer in the firefighter-drama Only the Brave, Teller not only braved the heat of forest fires but also captured the desperate reality of a man struggling to overcome addiction while dealing with unplanned parental responsibilities. And now, as Sgt. Adam Schumann, he heads home from Iraq with none of the physical scars many veterans of these new conflicts bear. But in no way is he unscathed by the harrowing experience.
Schumann suffers from the crushing weight of responsibility. On patrol, he sat shotgun, ever vigilant for roadside bombs. His men extoled his genius by remarking that Schumann didn’t “see” bombs, he sensed them and, apparently, was rarely wrong. But Hall shows us, in heart-wrenching fragments, one of the times that Schumann’s abilities failed him and his crew. On a detour based on a bad feeling, they find themselves trapped in a rooftop ambush. Without warning, a soldier named Michael Emory (Scott Haze) takes a round to the head and Schumann, while attempting to carry him down the stairs to their vehicle, chokes on the man’s blood and drops him on his head. It matters little to Schumann that his efforts saved Emory’s life; he cannot shake his guilt over dropping an already wounded brother in that scenario.
And then there’s the fact that he has to face the wife (Amy Schumer) of a fallen soldier who took Schumann’s place on a fateful patrol. Everyone tells him that if he had been out that day, things would have turned out differently, but Schumann sees only the reality that someone died in his place.
Casualties of war litter the frames of Thank You For Your Service. The most telling aspect of the film is the realization that the battlefield is everywhere. Iraq is obviously one front, a decidedly hostile territory. But in the fleeting instances when we see Schumann back home, sitting shotgun as his wife Saskia (Haley Bennett) drives him around or in their bedroom having sex, it is obvious that his sense of potential threats encompasses any and every environment. What’s a person to do, when there is no longer a safe retreat from the horrors of war? Schumann wants to do the right thing at all times, but what happens when no one knows right from wrong?
Yet Schumann is a hero, because when he realizes that something is off in the way he and close comrades relate to civilian life, he seeks aid. We watch him valiantly embrace veteran support services, even when the bureaucratic process throws roadblocks in his path. We see that Schumann is a survivor and he’s doing the best he can to care for his men, particularly Solo (Beulah Koale), a Samoan-American soldier who longs to return to the front but can’t due to brain trauma. Solo loses focus and direction, which leads this proud man into a corner that he’s ill-equipped to escape on his own. And just as he did in the field, Schumann steps in to offer support.
Teller has been an actor to watch since his starring role in 2014’s Whiplash as a jazz student at a prestigious conservatory who wants to be a great drummer. He finds himself pushed to his limits by his instructor (J. K. Simmons).
Teller in this film deserves real thanks for daring to inhabit a role occurring in such a haunted space without resorting to the typical twitchy tics or vacant stares we’ve come to expect from actors playing veterans. His quiet demeanor is a façade, but a far sturdier one than the heroic poses we normally get in war films or comic-book adaptations. Both here and in Only the Brave, Teller finds the strength of his characters by slowing things down and staring straight into the dangerous void. And each film works for similar reasons, because they appreciate that the thing to fear is not just the fury of the blaze or the heat of battle, but also the aftermath, when we start to question the meaning of life and survival.
That’s when real heroes lead the way. (Now playing.) (R) Grade: B+