Why Is Hollywood Only Now Figuring Out How to Portray PTSD Sensitively?

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Jason Mitchell (left) and Garrett Hedlund in Mudbound. Photo: Netflix

In the searing, Sundance-anointed drama Mudbound (in limited theatrical release and on Netflix November 17), Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell portray World War II veterans making the uneasy transition from combat duty to civilian life in 1940s Mississippi. The recently returned airman and tank division sergeant — who were, respectively, a flirtatious good-time Charlie and the sharecropping son of tenant farmers before the war — cross racial fault lines to form a friendship over swigs of bourbon and a kind of shared shell shock. Both struggle with post-traumatic stress: a private hell of trembling hands and blood-drenched battlefield flashbacks that’s neither diagnosed nor treated in either man. “My nightmare’s always the same,” Mitchell says in the film. “I scream. But it’s nothing coming out.”

That nightmare is writ large across awards season this year, with PTSD factoring prominently into no fewer than five would-be prestige films. In an era when between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are said to suffer from the condition, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the number of vets diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder has tripled over the last decade, it would appear that Hollywood has awakened to the power of PTSD as a plot device: a relatively new frontier when it comes to the old screenwriting edict that “character is conflict.”

In the fact-based drama Stronger (which hit theaters in September), Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, an average guy who loses both legs below the knee in 2013’s terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon, only to struggle heroically with the psychological turmoil of his ordeal. The character’s post-traumatic stress manifests itself in the form of alcoholism and self-loathing, as well as flat-out denial that he even has post-traumatic stress. The condition appears again in the biographical war drama Thank You for Your Service (released last month, based on Washington Post reporter David Finkel’s acclaimed book of the same name), which follows a trio of Iraq War veterans re-acclimating to civilian life in Kansas while grappling with various forms of PTSD.

One principal character (Beulah Koale) suffers from crippling memory problems and depression stemming from his wartime experiences. Another, played by Miles Teller, is haunted by a fellow enlistee’s battlefield death for which he may or may not be directly responsible. The third soldier’s reaction to post-traumatic stress is suicide, a filmic reflection of a stark reality: According to a 2016 governmental study, 20 military veterans take their own lives every day.

Thank You for Your Service writer-director Jason Hall (nominated for a best adapted screenplay Oscar for American Sniper, which also features characters grappling with PTSD) tells Vulture that the operating idea was to make a “war film that takes place entirely in the characters’ heads and hearts” — the catch being that he had to cinematically convey psychic wounds that are most often marked by silence and internalized despair. “We use PTSD as a categorization for a grab bag of symptoms with no definable or proven treatment,” says Hall. “In filming that, the challenge is, No. 1 the veterans don’t talk about it, No. 2, it’s internal. So we had to give the audience enough to understand what was echoing around inside of them. To let them live with these people as the families live with them — with the mysteries of trauma. Unwinding this thing that has happened inside. Living this secret life.”

So, why is this (long overdue) wave of sensitively told PTSD stories hitting Hollywood all at once? To hear it from Hall, the sudden focus reflects a societal thought-shift in ideas about heroism, moving away from the “myth of Western masculinity” and trauma as weakness. “I think we’re on the beginning corner of a turn,” the filmmaker says. “It’s understanding the human spirit of sacrifice. The hero has traditionally been a masculine element: toughness, strength, skill, courage, determination. The feminine aspect is all of those inner gifts: compassion, empathy, forgiveness, love, tenderness. So I think we’re starting to find a way to bring those things together. In our heroes. In our stories. In the people we seek to bring to life on the screen.”

Filmmakers haven’t always been so sympathetic to sufferers of what’s historically been referred to as “combat fatigue” or “battle neurosis.” Many movies from the ’70s and ’80s, including Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and even Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films, present PTSD sufferers as broken men or ticking time bombs prone to paroxysms of violence and destructive behavior. More recent movies such as The Hurt Locker (2008) and In the Valley of Elah (2007) ascribe certain kinds of dehumanizing behavior to post-traumatic stress: an addiction to combat in the former and the impetus for murder in the latter film.

But in two of this year’s awards season movies, PTSD serves as the catalyst for creative breakthroughs that end up changing the face of popular culture. In the October biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, the playwright/novelist A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returns to London after fighting at the Battle of Somme — one of World War I’s bloodiest conflicts during which a million men were either killed or injured — a changed man. Emotionally withdrawn and distant toward loved ones, Milne mistakes buzzing bees for flying bullets and a popped balloon for mortar fire: textbook symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Moving to the leafy Sussex countryside with his wife and (titular) 8-year-old son, the writer winds up channeling his anguish into creating one of children’s fiction’s most beloved characters: Winnie the Pooh.

“The book became so popular because readers were eager to recapture this innocence that was lost during World War I,” says Goodbye Christopher Robin director Simon Curtis. So is it fair to assume that without PTSD Winnie might never have existed? “That does seem to be one of the takeaways of the film,” he says. “That’s the interesting thing about art. You never know where it’s going to come from.”

Similarly, the J.D. Salinger bio-drama Rebel in the Rye (which arrived in theaters in September) frames the writing of The Catcher in the Rye as a direct response to post-traumatic stress. In the film, young literary lion Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) is shown storming Normandy Beach as an army sergeant during World War II, carrying six chapters of what would eventually become his debut novel. Returning to New York after combat, however, he is clearly scarred by the experience, alternately catatonic and withdrawn, suffering sleeplessness and panic attacks. Camera flashbulbs trigger memories of concentration camps. The smell of burning flesh lingers in his nostrils.

But Salinger’s wartime hardship ultimately yields newfound authorial maturity. Learning to mitigate his PTSD through yoga and meditation, he goes on to complete the Great American Novel, becoming a certified literary sensation in the process. “The war made him a better writer,” Salinger’s agent (played by Sarah Paulson) says in the film. “But it really messed him up.”

Rebel in the Rye’s writer-director Danny Strong (better known as co-creator of Fox’s hit series Empire) tells Vulture that post-traumatic stress issues also explain Salinger’s vexing decision to stop publishing and hermetic move to the wilds of New Hampshire at the peak of his acclaim.

“The fact is, he was a veteran who had suffered in the war and had a mental breakdown, then created the character of Holden Caulfield — the troubled teenager, who experiences this mental breakdown,” says Strong. “It also explained what happened to [Salinger] and the macrobiotic eating, the isolation, all of it. That this was someone who had untreated war trauma. This creature of the city, this charismatic man had to move away and isolate himself in the country. It seemed so clear a PTSD symptom, a way of trying to heal one’s self.

“I made the film for two reasons: to shine a light on PTSD issues and on the journey of the artist. In order to become an artist, Salinger had to survive a war. Talk about obstacles! It makes him a better artist, even if it seems to limit his ability to function,” adds Strong. “The journey of the artist and the PTSD story are inextricably intertwined.”

Hollywood’s New, Sensitive Take on PTSD