This Is a Movie Review: The Writer of ‘American Sniper’ Says ‘Thank Your for Your Service’ with a Deep Dive Into PTSD

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CREDIT: Francois Duhamel/DreamWorks Pictures/Universal

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Miles Teller, Haley Bennett, Beulah Koale, Amy Schumer, Joe Cole, Keisha Castle-Hughes

Director: Jason Hall

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for PTSD Hallucinations and the Resultant Anger

Release Date: October 27, 2017

When American Sniper racked up over $300 million at the domestic box office, it wasn’t shocking just because it featured zero comic book superheroes or animated talking animals, but also because of how focused it was on the homefront. Its Iraq-set sequences were generally not very memorable; instead, its main purpose for existing was to bring to the fore the scourge of post-traumatic stress disorder on U.S. soil. I doubt that Thank You for Your Service, written and directed by Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall, will rake in similarly huge bucks, but it has learned the right lessons from its predecessor of where to place its focus.

Thank You is primarily concerned with the perpetually overburdened Department of Veterans Affairs, which is trying to offer psychiatric help for its returning soldiers, but the soonest it can offer appointments is 12 weeks, but sometimes no earlier than nine months. For vets like Adam (Teller), Aieti (Koale), and Will (Cole), that is just as life-threatening as combat in Iraq. This might not sound like the most rousing of cinematic premises, but the way it plays out is quite thrilling. PTSD episodes exist as disorienting hallucinations that are the more surreal for just how minimally they depart from reality. A fallen comrade suddenly appears and seems to be perfectly corporeal but then lets out a blood-curdling scream, inciting a burst of uncontrollable violence. It plays out as horror that will hit too close to home for many.

Anchoring the whole endeavor and preventing it from becoming too overwhelming is Teller, who has developed a knack for playing characters with plenty of hustle who take on much more weight than anyone has asked them to. Adam’s burden is less PTSD and more survivor’s guilt. He struggles to atone for a squadmate he attempted to save but who ended up partially paralyzed, and he can barely face the widow of a fellow sergeant who died after taking his place on one coincidental day. That he ultimately does face his fears provides some hope that maybe this system is not entirely broken. As a narrative machine, Thank You for Your Service is a little creaky, but it pulls through with astutely observed interactions between soldier and soldier or soldier and spouse, and brings it all home with a gentle catharsis.

Thank You for Your Service is Recommended If You Like: American Sniper, Jacob’s Ladder

Grade: 3 out of 5 PTSD Hallucinations

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Only the Brave’ Admirably Portrays an Elite Firefighting Crew

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CREDIT: Richard Foreman/Sony Pictures Entertainment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Jennifer Connelly

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Conflagrations and References to Past Drug Use

Release Date: October 20, 2017

It is a frequently stated and generally accepted claim that mothers have the strength to lift a car when their children are in danger. Perhaps we need a similarly illustrative example for people who are naturally drawn to extreme situations in service of others. How else can we explain how relatively few people become firefighters but those who do must necessarily be dangerously committed? It is a little abstract to put in these terms, as the threat is often not immediate and it can be difficult for the human mind to comprehend the scale of the population that is being protected. There is also the fact that we already can explain firefighters’ ability via hardcore training and acclimation exercises. But the ever-present life-threatening nature of this calling earns it a more intense appraisal.

With that in mind, the best way to watch Only the Brave is by appreciating a group of experts performing their jobs exceptionally well under pressure. The film tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite Arizona firefighting crew, and the events leading up to their battle with the Yarnell Hill Fire, one of America’s deadliest wildfires in decades. The two most compelling performances come courtesy of Josh Brolin and Miles Teller. The former is the crew’s head, Eric “Supe” Marsh. We’ve seen his type before: when he isn’t physically out in the forest (which he almost always is), his mind is still there, dreaming about a charging bear drenched in flames. He is the kind of guy whose wife (Jennifer Connelly) must bear hearing clichés like “It’s not easy sharing your man with the fire.” Supe’s characterization comes nowhere reinventing the wheel, but Brolin imbues him with plenty of dignity.

More unique is Teller’s role as Brendan “Donut” McDonough, the crew’s newest recruit, a former addict genuinely trying to improve himself. When introduced, he in no shape to be a firefighter, puking and nearly dehydrating on the first training run. Back home, an ex-girlfriend has just given birth to their daughter, and he is making a genuine effort to earn a place in her life. There are plenty of moments that Brendan could relapse, or abandon his crew, or give up on being a dad. But he always sticks it through, proving his mettle as a man with willpower that is rare and admirable. Dramatic heft is often achieved through fighting past bad decisions, but Only the Brave manages to earn plaudits by continually keeping Brendan on the up-and-up.

Ultimately, I admire the story of Only the Brave more than I enjoy it as a film. Partly, I believe that is due to the narrative’s episodic sensibility, which is an odd choice, considering that it is leading up to a huge climax. Of course, that decision makes a certain sense, in that day-to-day life, no matter how dangerous, is usually unspectacular until the one day that it is unpredictable. This may not be as much of a problem to other viewers, but I do wish the editing had been as compelling as the performances.

Only the Brave is Recommended If You Like: Real Life Bravery

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Fire Bears