In Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, Will (Ben Foster) has created his own private world with his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in the wilderness of Portland's Forest Park. When park rangers discover them, the two must not only find a new place to live, but come to grips with what home means to them together and separately. For Will, the shadow of his military service stays with him, making being around other people uncomfortable at best. "We did not overly articulate what Will is struggling with; his scars are internal," explains Foster, adding, "I've had the privilege of talking to a lot of brave men and women about this; I have friends who served and survived and have done a lot of healing." While Will's wartime backstory is only touched on, Granik and her team wanted to get details right. "I'm very interested in the lives of veterans, especially how their experiences affect them years after the war," says Granik. To bring Will's internal conflicts into focus, Granik notes how she was able to dive "deeper into the issues that the father character wrestles with, through the help of several vets who advised on the film based on their personal experiences." Like many powerful films before it, Leave No Trace highlights the seemingly endless battles, both invisible and real, that service members must wage long after they have come home. We look at how different films portray that struggle.
William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, a memorable look at how three different service men deal with returning home, perfectly captures how a nation struggled with peace when the film was released in 1946. The idea for the film, however, began in August of 1944, nearly a year before World War II was over. Touched by a Time Magazine article on returning service men, studio head Samuel Goldwyn hired MacKinlay Kantor to write a treatment. His novella Glory for Me became the basis for the film. When peace finally came, some worried that Americans might have war fatigue at the box office. Mark Harris reports in Five Came Back that Robert Sherwood, who'd been tapped to write the screenplay, started to believe that only "a small minority…afflicted with war neuroses" would find this subject interesting. But for Wyler, who stepped up to direct after John Ford turned the project down, the topic was not only important, but personal. Having served in the Air Force, where he made several documentaries, Wyler worked directly with Sherwood to instill aspects of himself and his experience in each of the three main characters. In the film, Dana Andrews and Fredric March find their identities turned upside down when they come home. In the war, Andrews was a hero pilot; back home, he can only find work as a soda jerk. March, a bank executive, is pushed to turn down loans to soldiers he felt were his brothers. But Wyler's most significant contribution was insisting they cast Harold Russell, a non-actor veteran who'd lost both of his hands in the war, for the boy next door who can't face his fiancée. The film proved a huge success, earning seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. First-time actor Russell made history winning two Academy Awards-one for Supporting Actor, and an honorary Oscar for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."
Ron Kovic rose to national attention in 1976 when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention, the same year he published Born on the Fourth of July, a memoir of his experience in Vietnam and his anti-war activism afterwards. Al Pacino was so moved by Kovic's speech that he immediately acquired the rights to transform his story into a film. Within a year, Oliver Stone was working closely with Kovic to craft a screenplay. But after several directors and lead actors came and went, the project was all but dead. It would take the success of Stone's own Vietnam War film Platoonin 1986 to revive the project. Universal wanted Stone to direct, but with the caveat that he needed to find a major star to play the wounded war veteran. Before Stone could consider the obvious suspects, like Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage, an unexpected candidate, Tom Cruise, contacted him. Cruise dedicated a year to researching the role, meeting with veterans, and even learning how to maneuver a wheelchair. Critics who wondered if the Top Gun star had the depth to capture the fullness of Kovic's journey were amazed. The New York Times' Vincent Canby proclaimed that Cruise "defines everything that is best about the movie…He is innocent and clean-cut at the start; at the end, angry and exhausted." The film, which received eight Academy Award nominations (including Cruise's first), won for Best Director and Best Editing. But Cruise's biggest honor came from Kovic himself. "On the last day of shooting, I gave Tom my Bronze Star, the medal I won in Vietnam," Kovic explained. "I told him it was for his heroic performance.''
After adapting Chris Kyle's memoir American Sniper into an Oscar-nominated screenplay, Jason Hall was approached by Steven Spielberg to adapt Thank You For Your Service, a haunting account of soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan by The Washington Post writer David Finkel. Hall's agent originally worried that the two books were too similar for the up-and-coming filmmaker. But Hall, looking back to the classics, saw an obvious distinction. Hall explained, "one is the story of Achilles and one is the story of Odysseus…One is very much the warrior's story, and the other is very much coming home. How does the warrior find his way home?" When Spielberg bowed out of directing Thank You, he handed over the reins to Hall. In the film, Miles Teller plays Adam Schumann, the real-life hero of Finkel's book. Back in Kansas, no one, other than his fellow service man, seem to understand his nightmares and inexplicable guilt. For Chicago Sun Times' Richard Roeper, Thank You "is a powerful and valuable addition to the coming-home war movie canon," partially because of the way it changes the emphasis of the word "service" in its title. By the film's end, the phrase refers less to the reflexive refrain delivered to servicemen and more to the care those returning soldiers show each other. "The most heroic thing that anyone could have done in that entire war is to come home and reveal themselves," says Hall, praising the film's real-life hero. "Adam took it upon himself to do that because he knew it was going to help somebody else."
While most films about returning veterans focus on men returning to their families, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Megan Leavey showcases a woman trying to provide a home for the combat dog she worked with in Iraq. Based on a true story, the film features Kate Mara as Leavey, a Marine Corporal who finds her life's purpose when she runs into a growling German Shepherd called Rex after being assigned to kennel duty at Camp Pendleton. The unexpected and endearing bond between the dog and woman grows as Leavey trains Rex to serve in the bomb sniffing canine unit, eventually working alongside him on several military tours. When an improvised explosive device in Iraq seriously injures both of them, Leavey is sent home with a Purple Heart and Rex is returned to his kennel labeled "unadoptable." For Leavey, the journey to recovery began when she recognized her need to rescue Rex. "Megan shows that she needs her partner back with her to help her with PTSD," explains Cowperthwaite, who was drawn to the project for the chance "to pull back the curtain on what it is like to come back physically and mentally intact but a little bit broken." At once clear-eyed and heartrending, the film, according to Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, "deftly sidesteps the paths that suck you down in sentimental quicksand. Oh, you'll cry all right. But the movie earns your tears."