"Thank You For Your Service" may be an Iraq war film. But its most harrowing scene takes place far from the battlefield: in the sterile, dingy waiting room of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
There, as countless veterans, many of them wounded, sit for hours waiting to talk to someone, Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) tries to arrange treatment for himself and his buddy, both suffering from PTSD. When Schumann finally gets to the window, he's told he'll get to see a doctor — in six to nine months.
You can hear the audience gasp here — more than they gasp during an earlier battle scene, with all its blood. In a quiet way, this is more devastating. We know that neither Adam nor his buddy, Solo (Beulah Koale), has that kind of time to play with.
The key strength of "Thank You For Your Service ," an earnest and poignant but also occasionally incomplete-feeling effort by director-writer Jason Hall (who wrote "American Sniper"), is in these scenes of a wholly inefficient veterans' bureaucracy, and the justifiable shock on the part of returning soldiers that there's so little help awaiting them after they've repeatedly risked their lives. We may have heard this story before, but frankly, it's important to hear it again.
"Thank You For Your Service" is based partly on the book by journalist David Finkel, who tracked a group of soldiers returning home to Topeka, Kansas, from Iraq. And it's in Iraq that we begin, briefly. "I was a good soldier," Adam says in voiceover. "I had purpose and I loved it."
In fact, he's on his third tour of duty. In a quick battle scene on a rooftop, a fellow soldier gets shot in the head by a sniper. Adam carries him on his shoulders down a flight of stairs, his comrade's blood spurting down Adam's face and choking him.
Soon the men are flying home, to lives in various stages of disarray. On the plane, they're discussing a bachelor party for Will (Joe Cole), but he arrives home to find, tragically, that his fiancee had other ideas. Solo, meanwhile, has a traumatic brain injury from an explosion and can't even retain what day it is.
Adam is ostensibly in the best shape; he has a loving wife and two sweet kids. But what will he do now? He has no job, no sense of purpose like he had on the battlefield. The family has also lost its former home, due to financial issues.
Even worse, Adam is haunted and guilt-ridden by a mistake he made in combat. And both he and Solo are wracked with remorse over the death of a soldier in their unit whose wife — in an unexpected dramatic cameo by Amy Schumer, in a dark wig — is desperate for answers.
Adam's marriage is also hurting under the weight of his silent suffering. His wife (Haley Bennett) goes with him to seek a spot in a therapeutic program, and the couple are told there's a waitlist of hundreds of thousands. "But he's a veteran," she says. "That's what I mean," comes the reply. "Hundreds of thousands of veterans."
Effective moments like that, though, alternate with occasional returning-vet cliches, like when Solo has a flashback and punches a hole in the wall. And we don't see nearly enough of what Adam is experiencing to understand why both he and his wife fear he may take his own life.
Teller, always so watchable, gives a thoughtful, solid performance as Adam (the real Adam, by the way, has a brief cameo), and Koale is especially moving as a maimed man who is still grateful for his Army service and wants to rejoin his unit. An excellent Scott Haze makes the most of a painful but redemptive scene as a man who will forever be changed by a bullet wound to the brain. As for Schumer, she's to be commended for her understated portrayal of a hurting army widow — but the role is too brief for us to really get past the "wow, that's Amy Schumer" moment.
In the end, though, what will stick with you most are those depressing bureaucracy scenes, shining a needed light into the ordeal returning soldiers face trying to re-integrate into a society that still doesn't seem to quite know how to absorb them. Hall has said his goal was to continue the conversation he began in "American Sniper." He has, and it's a conversation that needs to keep going.
"Thank You For Your Service," a Universal Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material and brief nudity." Running time: 108 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.