Are audiences ready to relive the early days of the Iraq war, as well as its painful aftermath, in unflinching fashion? That will be tested over the coming weeks, by the movies “Thank You For Your Service” and, to a lesser degree, “Last Flag Flying,” and the eight-part National Geographic miniseries “The Long Road Home.”
“American Sniper,” the 2014 film starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, was obviously a huge hit. These projects, however, bring different perspectives to the heroism and sacrifice of those serving, while grappling with a long cinematic history of movies grappling with the aftermath of America’s wars.
“Thank You For Your Service” –written and directed by “Sniper” scribe Jason Hall, and also inspired by a true story — is a much bleaker account of military men returning home, starring Miles Teller and newcomer Beulah Koale as army infantrymen struggling to adjust while plagued by memories of what happened during their tours.
“The Long Road Home,” meanwhile, is based on ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz’s nonfiction book, chronicling an ambush and rescue that took place in 2004, from the perspective of the 1st Cavalry Division in Sadr City — surrounded and pinned down — and their worried families back home.
Of the three, the most impactful is actually the most peripherally connected: “Last Flag Flying,” based on Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, about three former Vietnam buddies — played by Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell — reunited by a tragedy during the first year of the Iraq war. (The book was written as a sequel to Ponicsan’s “The Last Detail” but has been stripped of that aspect in director Richard Linklater’s adaptation.)
“Thank You For Your Service” falls into a long tradition of movies exploring the post-war experience, from “The Best Years of Our Lives” following World War II to “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” after Vietnam.
Despite the film’s earnestness and strong performances, the drama suffers somewhat from those inevitable comparisons. At the same time, it highlights the struggles facing modern-day warriors, from indifferent treatment by government agencies to the painful re-acclimation of those coming home and their families alike.
Based on David Finkel’s book, whose title is tinged with irony, “Thank You For Your Service” deals head-on with post-war trauma, including suicidal tendencies, survivor’s guilt and the feeling, as one of the soldiers puts it, that “I don’t belong here.”
The confusion extends to their spouses, with Haley Bennett playing the wife of Teller’s character, who keeps urging him to open up to her. (Amy Schumer has a small but significant role as a war widow.)
Billed as a “global miniseries event,” “The Long Road Home” engages in a less challenging balancing act, filtering the struggle and sacrifice of military personnel and their families through one harrowing battle that, given reports about Iraq being pacified, nobody saw coming.
“He really thought the fighting was over,” says an army wife played by Kate Bosworth, to which another replies, “We all did.”
Eight hours, frankly, stretches the story in a way that creates uneven patches. Although it allows more time to develop characters and their histories — including flashbacks before their deployment, and jumping ahead beyond it — those arcs perhaps cast too wide a net, diluting the powerful moments by creating more space to drift into melodrama. Michael Kelly, Jason Ritter and Sarah Wayne Callies are among the other recognizable faces in the sizable ensemble.
Taken together, these dramatizations assemble a cohesive portrait of the general chaos of war — and what transpired in Iraq in particular — and its aftermath, including the ripple effects across families and communities.
There are, surely, sobering and worthwhile lessons there, and each war deserves its own stories. The question is whether “Thank You For Your Service” and “The Long Road Home” — however noble their intentions — are the most effective means of dispensing them.
“Thank You For Your Service” opens Oct. 27 in the U.S. It’s rated R. “Last Flag Flying” opens Nov. 3 in the U.S. It’s rated R. “The Load Road Home” premieres Nov. 7 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.