The movie version of Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist David Finkel’s nonfiction book “Thank You for Your Service” follows a group of traumatized Iraq War veterans’ tough return home.
It’s not the best years of these working class soldiers’ lives. Adam Schumann, portrayed by Miles Teller, is haunted by the responsibility he feels for what happened to some beloved comrades.
Tausolo “Solo” Aeiti, played by New Zealand/Samoan actor Beulah Koale, is dealing with neurological complications from close encounters with bomb blasts. Michael Emory (Scott Haze) has immobilization and isolation issues aplenty. British actor Joe Cole plays a character whose real life counterpart was not named by Finkel nor the film’s screenwriter-director Jason Hall, but whose disappointing trip Stateside tells many a soldier’s sad homecoming story.
Finkel spent a long stretch hanging out after-war with Schumann and some of the other willing vets before writing “Thank You,” a sequel of sorts to his book about their battalion while in-country, “The Good Soldiers.” Hall, who’d scripted Clint Eastwood’s massive hit “American Sniper” and makes his directing debut with this movie, did the same.
Schumann, a friendly, soft-spoken fellow who still lives in his hometown Minot, North Dakota – not far from his ex-wife Saskia, depicted by Haley Bennett in the movie, with whom he shares joint custody of their children – still seems kind of amazed by all of the attention.
“I was just an average soldier,” Schumann says. “That’s how I look at it anyways. I’m not a hero, I did more than most and a lot less than some.
“ ‘The Good Soldiers’ was about our tour of duty during The Surge, and after that book came out David didn’t really feel that the story was done,” Schumann continues. “He wanted to write about how difficult of a transition it is from combat one day to making pancakes and playing in a dollhouse the next. He became a hip-pocket therapist. He followed me everywhere. In the middle of the night, I couldn’t sleep and I’d go to the river and fish. It was 30 degrees in January, and here’s this guy sitting on the rocks behind me with a notebook.”
When Hollywood called Schumann, who comes from a long line of citizen soldiers, he had to get over a little Heartland skepticism.
“He approached it like Jason approaches stuff, head first and he really just bit into it and wouldn’t let go,” Schumann says of the filmmaker. “But he did a great job of figuring me out and figuring out how to open me up, like David did. And he made me feel comfortable with the process because, you know, everybody’s got this stigma about Hollywood d-baggery, whatever, pardon my language. But I learned a long time ago that there are three sides to every story: there’s yours, theirs and everyone else’s. So I stepped back from my own opinion and said, let’s see what happens and hear the guy out. The more we talked, the more I felt comfortable and he just kept slowly chipping away. It took some time.”
“The reporting by Finkel was so good that I didn’t need Adam to retell me the story that had already been told in the book,” Hall explains. “I needed to sort of psychically scrape off samples of this guy and figure out who he is so I could bring the person to the screen. I did that with all of them, to varying degrees of success and relatability.”
Hall soon discovered that these members of the Army’s 2nd Battalion were nothing like “American Sniper’s” superstar Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
“These guys came from a very different place,” Hall acknowledges. “Different backgrounds, training, they fought a different war from a different p.o.v. Not only that, they returned to a very different experience than someone like Chris, who walked off the battlefield as a legend. These guys were coming back anonymous right into lives as fathers or husbands trying to find jobs or make it out of the hospital. It was a different speed from the special operators I’d worked with, and it required me to do a reset.”
Hall invited Schumann to the Georgia set of the movie, where the veteran was pleased to see that Teller and company were put through intense basic training. He stayed on as a consultant for the production – except for a few weeks when Ang Lee requested he provide similar services for reshoots of the Oscar-winning director’s own coming home project, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
“I got to come down to L.A. and stand next to Ang Lee and, basically, direct Ang Lee!” enthuses Schumann, who wouldn’t mind a career as a military technical consultant for future productions. “In the movie industry, it’s military style. I mean, there are call sheets, if that guy’s not doing his job you can’t do yours. The whole day hinges on . . . It’s hurry up and wait, but when it’s your turn, you’d better be on the ball. I could really embrace that, it felt great to work again in that environment.”
Schumann was similarly impressed by Teller’s commitment to portraying him.
“He’s a true professional, and I respect that because, in the Army, that’s what you strive to be,” the soldier explains. “Miles is really great to be around and he takes his work very seriously. It’s just amazing to see.”
Hall admits that “Thank You” is not a direct translation of the book. “American Sniper” has been criticized for leaving out some of the darker aspects of Kyle’s personality and later, questionable claims that he made.
“I didn’t bring that into it because I’ll never know, I wasn’t there,” the writer says. “What I did in that movie was make a movie from Chris’ point of view.”
Hall’s screenwriting philosophy is evident throughout “Thank You for Your Service.”
“The reality is, if someone followed you or I around in our lives and documented what we did, it would have very little meaning from the outside,” Hall reckons. “So this was about finding what this story was about, and for me it was a story about homecoming, the soldier finding his way back to himself, the story of Odysseus – and then finding the bits and pieces of this story to tell it, the incidents in Adam’s and others’ lives to service that theme and what the story was about.
“I think the art of adaptation is in the things that must change, not in the things that don’t,” the writer continues. “The things that don’t change are just formatting. I could have simply written the events of the book, formatted it and turned it in. It would’ve been a very easy job! But the artistry is finding a way to condense, to marry, to weave, to alter for the better of the universal meaning of this story.”
At least one viewer has a very personal opinion about how all of that worked out.
“Now that I look back at it, it’s pretty impressive,” Schumann, who has never been able to read past the first paragraph of Finkel’s book, says of the movie he’s now seen twice. “At the time, it was kind of embarrassing, that was a pretty crappy moment in my life. I was so pessimistic, kind of, through this whole thing, but now that it’s done, holy smokes.
“The first time I watched it it was gut-wrenching, it hurt, it was so tough to watch . . . and I think that’s a true testament to how well Jason and Miles and the other people who worked on it did. I guess I didn’t see it as looking at myself, but I didn’t see Miles. I saw myself on the screen looking at Saskia or my friends. It was tough to watch, but that means it was good. Great, actually.”
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