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The War at Home, and Elsewhere, in American Movies

In ‘Thank You for Your Service’ and ‘Last Flag Flying,’ two visions of military veterans reveal how much, and how little, has changed in the ways that war takes its toll

Miles Teller in ‘Thank You for Your Service’ and Steve Carell in ‘Last Flag Flying’ Universal Pictures/Amazon Studios/Ringer illustration

There’s a hot current of guilt surging through Thank You for Your Service, writer and director Jason Hall’s stirring new drama about the personal costs of the Iraq War. Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, played by Miles Teller, feels it the most.

One of his last, worst memories from his most recent deployment is of trying to carry a fellow soldier who’s just been struck in the head by enemy fire to safety. Schumann, disorientedly carrying the soldier down several flights of stairs as the man’s blood spills into his eyes and mouth, trips. He drops the man on his head—right on his wound. The soldier barely survives. Not long after that, another man in Schumann’s unit offers to switch patrols so Schumann can hang behind one afternoon to call his wife. That soldier dies from being burned alive in an ambushed humvee—in Schumann’s seat. The first person Schumann sees when he touches down back in the U.S.—the first person he must answer to—is that dead soldier’s wife (played by Amy Schumer).

Thank You for Your Service is the second Miles Teller film in as many weeks to study tragic, true stories of American bravery. The first was the firefighter film Only the Brave, the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 of whom perished in the historic Yarnell Fire of 2013. Thank You for Your Service, meanwhile, is based on reporter David Finkel’s 2013 book of the same name, a chronicle of the lives of a handful of soldiers facing the mounting emotional costs and invisible injuries of war, now that they’ve come home. In the movie, Schumann and his two closest friends from his unit, Specialist Solo Aieti (Beulah Koale) and Billy Waller (Joe Cole)—all of them based on real men—arrive back to the States too broken to go back to Iraq but too entrenched in war, psychologically, to make sense of home. Solo, an American Samoan who believes that joining the army and becoming a U.S. citizen saved his life, has brain injuries that make his memory a little fuzzy and reactions a tad slow. As he discovers in an interview with a VA doctor, he has trouble remembering the date. Billy, who’s somehow survived seven bombings, comes home to find that the woman he thought he was going to marry—the stability he’d been looking forward to while deployed—has abandoned him. Schumann, meanwhile, is a father of three who, burdened with bad memories, can’t seem to figure out how to talk to his wife Saskia (Haley Bennett) about what happened or reintegrate himself into his family.

The men are by turns erratic, depressed, violent, and lonely. Solo finds himself so desperate for drugs to ease his mood that he falls in with a drug dealer—another vet—who puts his life in danger. Billy busts into the bank where his former fiancée works to confront her and winds up killing himself. Even as the writing and direction of Hall, who wrote the script for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, nimbly flips back and forth between these men and lets their stories play out individually, it’s clear from the outset that these guys are meant to stand for more than themselves. They can’t help but speak for a generation of veterans—to the point that the movie verges on feeling like a PSA.

It’s a movie in the tradition of that grand Hollywood classic The Best Years of Our Lives, from 1946, in that regard. William Wyler’s film studied the lives of three World War II veterans trying to adjust to life after the war. Wyler’s film bravely made PTSD and other war traumas its subject at a time before that conversation was on the table. Hall draws from the structure and feel of Wyler’s film as if to say, by way of homage, that the conversation is still lacking—and still in need of cinematic heroes.

Hall, through flashbacks and hallucinations and sudden fits of anger, has made an effective movie. It’s never better than when walking us through the process at the VA. The images of the waiting room are what lingers: multiple generations of broken men and women, all gathered together for care that’s no guarantee. There’s sometimes a clinical sense of detail to Hall’s depiction of dealing with the VA, down to the questionnaires used to assess the soldiers’ emotional states and the kinds of hoops some of them have to jump through to qualify for care. There’s a discouraging sense of the political machine at work, too. Schumann bumps into a higher-up who seems surprised to see him there, going so far as to encourage him to leave. “You were my hammer out there,” the commander says. “Don’t let these young guys see you fold like this. This is bad for morale—it’s bad for Big Army.”

As an encounter, it’s a bit ridiculous, stagey and random, playing out in the halls of the VA in a way that feels unlikely. But it's effective for being so infuriating. Schumann is a man in need of serious help—and even he feels outraged, at times, at the shitty attitudes of higher-ups and the interminable wait times. There’s a strain of anger running through this movie that, to its detriment, Hall downplays in favor of being respectful of the stories he’s telling. There’s a placid dramatic distance to it all, amped up whenever the characters’ emotions run hot, but otherwise cool.

That’s too bad for a movie whose best asset is its sense of urgency. The movie makes us peer right into the faces of these men, to reckon with their emotions, over and over until we agree. Koale, in particular, is a standout. His is a face capable of registering every inch of his pain and confusion over his fate, and over the damage done to his mind, all at once—it breaks your heart. Staring into the face of a man flailing to make sense of everyday life, you feel more than sympathy: You feel anger. And you start to wish the movie did, too.

You end Thank You for Your Service hoping the men will eventually move on. You watch Last Flag Flying—Richard Linklater’s intimate new drama, and the second of two films about the travails of American veterans to hit theaters in consecutive weeks—unsure that they ever really will.

Last Flag Flying, out this Friday, stars Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell as men who served together—and, as they tell it, practically went mad together—in Vietnam. The movie is unofficially a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, headlined by Jack Nicholson. But Linklater’s script, which he cowrote with The Last Detail novelist Darryl Ponicsan, so overloads the film with memories and backstories that what came before, plotwise, doesn’t really matter: It’s all here.

Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell), who ended his military career in disgrace, seeks out his old friends after his 21-year-old son dies overseas: Iraq, again. He’s said to have died under heroic conditions, saving the lives of others. So Doc sets off a reconciliation and a journey shared by old friends, as Doc seeks out the crass Sal Nealon (Cranston) and the Reverend Richard Mueller (Fishburne) to help him bury his son—and maybe tie up a few loose emotional ends of their own in the process. What starts as a basic road trip between an unlikely trio of old friends whose lives have gone in considerably different directions—Sal owns a Norfolk, Virginia, dive; Mueller is literally a reverend—becomes something richer, if not quite something great. The idea, at least, is resonant. Linklater and Ponicsan have taken the skeleton of The Last Detail and twisted it up into a story about legacies: The personal legacies of the men who fought, who likely have regrets, as well as the heroic legacies our nation invents in order to protect its own.

Doc’s plan originally is to see his son buried at Arlington. But after it’s revealed that his death was in fact completely arbitrary and that it occurred while off-duty, the government’s lie about his son’s heroism stirs up old resentments on the part of these three men about the American government’s thirst for war. These are, after all, veterans of Vietnam, men prone to suspicions about why a nation says it must go to war. Not even seeing the captured Saddam Hussein on television can stir a patriotic sense of duty. There’s a link the movie makes between how we feel about Vietnam and how we ought to feel about Iraq that simmers beneath the movie’s drama—provoking us even more than the drama itself.

The writing is the star here. As a piece of filmmaking Last Flag Flying is not the kind of Linklater movie that makes a case for the sublime intelligence of his deceptively plain, naturalistic style. More than usual with Linklater, what you see, in this case, is basically all you get. And what you get is above all a bevy of thorough, intelligent performances. As always, Linklater’s best scenes are the ones that feel lived-in to the point of feeling improvised from top to bottom. One standout moment involves the men reliving their wartime sex lives with a hilarious lack of shame with regard to their current weak erections; the others involve their tense interactions with a hardass colonel, played by Yul Vazquez, who stirs awake all their problems with authority.

Linklater doesn’t always make the most of this material. But his actors do. Fishburne is rich, as always, and Cranston has fun as the potty-mouthed, rambunctious Sal; Cranston is always good at making off-putting crassness seem like a thrill. But it’s Carell, who wears his sadness and fatigue down through his body, and who’s found a way to wear long emotional histories in his face, that stands out here. He’s the angriest character. He has the most reason to be. It’s his anger and grief, and the anger and grief it awakens in his friends, that overwhelms the movie. Like Thank You for Your Service, Last Flag Flying is a film about sacrifice. But only Linklater’s film comes alive with the rage over what that sacrifice means.