THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE: A former Army chaplain told me that no one is ever the same after experiencing combat. That fact has been the subject of movies about veterans readjusting to civilian life while carrying their internal battle scars since the post World War II era. In fact, the opening scenes of this film which is initially centered around three soldiers (Joe Cole, Beaulah Koale, Miles Teller) returning home from Iraq with more than just their military baggage feels like it’s channeling the plot of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) until one of the trio predictably commits suicide to the surprise of his buddies. Screenwriter Jason Hall (AMERICAN SNIPER) is in familiar territory with warriors conflicted by wartime experiences that spill over into family life. But a storyline surrounding Teller’s (WHIPLASH) “survivor’s guilt” over the death of a G.I. (Brad Beyer) who volunteered to take his place on an assignment is rather disjointed as it rewinds a firefight previously displayed in an opening sequence. It’s only during scenes revolving around the bureaucratic inefficiency of Veterans Affairs that you sense a passionate tone of outrage about a system that signs people up to risk life, limb and mental well-being only to cast them aside when their service is no longer needed. As director, Hall extracts credible performances from his cast which are definitely the movie’s strong suit with especially noteworthy work from Haley Bennett (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) as Teller’s perceptive wife. What prevents me from being more enthusiastic about this film is that it feels like other movies of its kind with an indirect nod to THE DEER HUNTER (1979) et. al. instead of being more of a post-9/11 examination of the toll our continuing wars on terrorism have taken on soldiers as well as their loved ones who serve with them. But the movie’s intentions are worthy enough to merit your time and attention even if it falls into the category of just “being good enough”.
CRITIC’S GRADE : B-
CLOSING CREDITS: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) has attained the status of being regarded as an American classic and remains the cinematic barometer by which all other films about soldiers readjusting to civilian life are measured. One of the stars of the movie was a former Army instructor named Harold Russell who lost both of his hands when a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling. Russell caught the eye of director William Wyler (BEN-HUR), himself a veteran, when he was in a military film about rehabilitating war veterans. Russell was cast as a Navy sailor who lost both his hands in the war and his touching performance (I dare you to watch the scene where his bride-to-be puts him in bed without crying like a little girl.) earned him an honorary Oscar “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans” plus the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He is the only performer to ever receive two Oscars for playing the same role. Russell hardly ever acted again choosing to involve himself with veterans’ organizations and even sold one of his golden statues at auction to pay for his wife’s medical expenses. Russell died in 2002 at the age of 88.