The Last Full Measure
2020, R, 110 min. Directed by Todd Robinson. Starring Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Irvine, Samuel L. Jackson, William Hurt, Alison Sudol, Ed Harris, Bradley Whitford, Christopher Plummer.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 24, 2020
Heroism is often complicated – and sometimes it’s very simple. On April 11, 1966, United States Air Force Pararescueman William H. Pitsenbarger flew a helicopter into a firefight and descended into combat to give medical assistance to injured soldiers. Pinned down by enemy fire, with the helicopters incapable of getting anyone else out, Pitsenbarger stayed to tend to and protect the remaining troops. Shot by a Viet Cong sniper in the night, he was found with a rifle in one hand and a medical kit in the other, having saved many American soldiers with both. He was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, and 34 years later he was given the Medal of Honor and promoted to Staff Sergeant.
The well-intentioned but disappointingly flat The Last Full Measure tries to describe why Pitsenbarger got the upgrade, and the process that saw the original application for the higher honor getting downgraded. Department of Defense pencil pusher Scott Huffman (Stan) gets pushed from his budget-writing job to overseeing the research into the snub. He travels to visit old soldiers who have a little bit of Pitsenbarger’s story to tell, and then the story slips back for scenes from the war. At every step, Huffman’s eyes are predictably opened and he too becomes an advocate against this very particular injustice.
It’s clearly a passion project for writer/director Todd Robinson (White Squall). Yet there’s an inherent tension between the veracity of what happened on the ground on that bloody day and the highly fictionalized depiction of a by-the-numbers low-key cover-up by a disinterested Pentagon (please, someone give Bradley Whitford something other to do than “fast-talking officious bureaucrat”). Stan does his best with a very two-dimensional (and that’s generous) part as the fictitious administrator on a mission, and there was always going to be something worthwhile in watching a series of aging character actors – Jackson, Hurt, and most especially the late Peter Fonda as a PTSD-riddled night bird – playing a different cliche of the Vietnam veteran. Yet there’s also something very questionable about peddling discredited myths about returning veterans being spat on by hippies at public airports. Plus, at this point, having every Vietnamese character be a bloodthirsty butcher with no lines reinforces that this feels more like a 1980s TV movie than a considered tribute to a fallen hero – especially when Pitsenbarger himself feels so lightly sketched. What could have been a worthy tribute becomes a by-the-numbers melodrama.