David Finkel is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Washington Post. His 2013 nonfiction book of the same name was the basis for this adaptation. This movie was beaten to the screen by Tom Donahue’s documentary, also of the same name, which premiered in 2015. The documentary covered the exact same subject matter. It focuses on the mental health of military veterans from the Iraq War. Both movies reference and pay particular attention to the military suicides. Both movies are probably in reaction to a 2013 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs that concluded the Army had the highest number of suicides and that roughly 20 veterans were dying by suicide per day. The suicide rate in the military was also twice as high as that of the civilian population. The causes are PTSD and depression from intense combat situations, as well as combat-related guilt.
From April 2007 to April 2008, Finkel was embedded with soldiers in the 1st Infantry, soldiers who were called the “2-16 Rangers.” Finkel was with them during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, as they worked to stabilize a portion of Baghdad. He documented his time over there in his 2009 book. This movie follows three of those so-called rangers as they return home to their base of Fort Riley, Kansas.
Miles Teller (Whiplash and Only the Brave) stars as Adam Schumann, a 26-year-old, Staff Sergeant who has a wife and two kids, a little girl and a newborn baby son. They’re trying to move back into a house they lost but aren’t sure how to afford it. When Adam was in Iraq, his job was to look for bombs hidden in trash or other places. The fear or anxiety that comes with that came back with him to America.
Beulah Koale (Hawaii Five-0) co-stars as Tausolo Aieti, aka Solo, an American Samoan who has a wife and a baby on the way. He keeps repeating that the military made his life better. Some facts about American Samoa. It’s an island in the south Pacific Ocean. It’s about 2500 miles south of Hawaii, about five hours by plane. It’s an island territory of the United States, which uses American money and various other things, but, unlike Puerto Rico, the people who live there aren’t U.S. citizens, meaning they don’t have to pay income taxes but they also can’t vote for President, even though the U.S. President has power over them. American Samoans can come to America without needing a visa or green card and become citizens if they then reside here, which is what Solo did, thanks to the military.
Other than through football, the military is the principal reason Samoan men come to the continent. Reportedly, American Samoa has the highest rate of military enlistment of any U.S. state or territory. It’s recruiting station was ranked number-one. In terms of number-one actors in this film though, the most kudos should go to Koale. Jason Hall, the writer of American Sniper, in his directorial debut, really gives Koale the space to portray this man with scars that can’t be seen. What perhaps undermines his performance is the choice to reveal late the inciting incident, which resulted in a soldier’s death.
Hall opens the film in April 2007 and with the infantry in question. Adam leads his unit upstairs to the rooftop of a building where they come under fire. One soldier, Michael Emory, played by Scott Haze (Only the Brave and Child of God) gets shot. Adam tries to carry him off the roof but stumbles and falls. This causes further injuries to Michael Emory. Hall then cuts to some time later and Adam’s unit returning to Kansas.
After Adam and his unit get off the plane, the wife of a killed soldier, Amanda Doster, played by Amy Schumer, runs up to Adam and asks how her husband died. In the hastiness of the opening scene and this one, I assumed that her husband was Michael Emory. Perhaps, it’s my fault for not paying closer attention, but Hall does deliberately delay revealing how Amanda’s husband died until the last act of the film.
More than half-way through, Adam does visit Michael Emory who did suffer paralyzing injuries but who is still alive. Yet, the bulk of Adam and Solo’s PTSD and survivor’s guilt stem from the death of Amanda’s husband, but we never see what happens until late in the film, so we can’t understand fully what is at the heart of the soldier’s guilt, especially for Solo because while Adam blames himself, he wasn’t actually there when Amanda’s husband died. Solo was there, which is why Koale’s performance is undermined slightly because we never see the cause until late in the movie.
The film is very empathetic and sympathetic to the problem of these soldiers’ suicides or suicidal tendencies. Of course, the film encourages helping them through therapy or some kind of mental health treatment. However, at one point, a counselor says there is no cure for trauma, implying the damage done or these experiences will always be with these men.
With that, I assumed the title to this film to be an ironic one, meant to signify how insincere that phrase is. Adam and Solo encounter quite a bit of red tape as they deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs and see a bit of jadedness. One thing that’s underscored is the crowding and the overwhelming number of soldiers in need of care for better physical and mental health. A scene that takes place where we see Solo go to a dog-fighting match where the wounded dogs were tossed away was probably the best metaphor this film could have shown. No, the Veterans Affairs office isn’t tossing away soldiers but because of all the red tape and overcrowding, it can feel that way and blame for that has to be put somewhere.
Like Hall’s previous screenplay, this movie doesn’t get political, which is a shame because the soldiers in this movie were part of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. That surge deployed more than 20,000 soldiers into Baghdad and extended the tours of most in the Army and the Marines, but no one wants to say that since there is no cure for trauma, then a tactic might be to avoid putting people in situations where trauma will no doubt be inflicted, namely unneeded wars or escalation of said wars through surges.
No one here can even say that the military culture contributes to a lot of its problems. The military’s overly macho environment that promotes suppression of emotions, except aggression as a mechanism of survival might be effective on the battlefield but literally kills men on the homefront. Hall also puts that overly macho environment on display too much, especially with a couple of homophobic comments, which aren’t appreciated.
Rated R for strong violent content, language and some sexuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.