It has been stated fairly regularly that war is hell, and still, no matter how often it is depicted on film, it always seems like there is more to say about that hell. Movies like “The Last Full Measure” from writer-director Todd Robinson offer the notion that while the general contours of that hell may be similar, the specifics are very different for everyone. This based on a true story tale is heavily focused on war’s aftermath, as 30 years after the fact, one Pentagon staffer finds himself on a quest to have a Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously awarded to a para jumper, William Pitsenbarger, who served and died in Vietnam.
Sebastian Stan is front and center as Scott Huffman, the staffer who reluctantly takes on task of uncovering Pitsenbarger’s actions as seen by the soldiers who were there. The actor best known for his time in the MCU delivers a very human, very down to Earth performance of one conflicted man trying to negotiate a past he doesn’t know and make it fit into the future for which he is hoping.
Back and forth the film goes, from the moments closer to the present with Huffman interviewing retired members of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division whom Pitsenbarger saved on that April day in 1966, to flashbacks of the moment itself, with the soldiers’ recollections putting together the story for both the audience and Huffman. It is harrowing to watch, no matter the time period.
With an outstanding cast that includes William Hurt, Peter Fonda, Ed Harris, and Samuel L. Jackson, “The Last Full Measure” makes those moments with Huffman listening to the retired soldiers incredibly powerful. Each of the men is seen as going through their own set of problems following the war and each is coping with it differently. It almost physically hurts to watch the trials these men have undergone in the decades that followed Vietnam. But, it isn’t just them either, it’s their spouses and, very importantly, Pitsenbarger’s parents, played by Diane Ladd and Christopher Plummer. Their son’s room remains unaltered all this time later and while they haven’t taken the lead in the fight for a medal, they are certainly behind the effort being put together by Tom Tulley (Hurt).
As great as that portion of the movie is, the affair does fall down somewhat when it comes to the behind the scenes machinations that denied Pitsenbarger the Medal of Honor initially (he was awarded the Air Force Cross rather than the Medal of Honor, and according to Wikipedia the first enlisted recipient of it). At some point, rather than it simply being a decision that was made to give him the lower award, it turns into a conspiracy to have kept the Medal of Honor from Pitsenbarger. This simply isn’t appropriately built into the narrative of the film. It comes from almost out of nowhere and then is dealt with as though it weren’t an issue in the first place.
Whether this aspect of the movie is depicted in order to add a layer of complication to the goings-on for Huffman or because it is indeed the truth is not one to which I can speak. What is clear, however, is that a (small) portion of the film is spent on it and it’s never fully explored. One winds up shaking their head that the film bothered to discuss it at all when there is such a depth of emotion to be plumbed from the soldiers’ tales as well as those of their family members.
Outside of that narrative fumble, “The Last Full Measure” does a wonderful job interspersing the moments of the battle in Vietnam throughout the film. It never feels showy or lingering, it is there to tell the larger story and spaced so that it is always with us, just as it has remained with the soldiers who lived it.
There is little doubt that many in the audience for “The Last Full Measure” will easily be able to relate it to other war films. Nonetheless, it is still a powerful movie anchored by several memorable performances. Perhaps by watching and learning the lessons the movie has to offer we can help prevent others from living this hell for decades on end.
photo credit: Roadside Attractions