“The Last Full Measure” – “The Vietnam War was arguably the most traumatic experience for the United States in the 20th century.” – author Donald M. Goldstein
“There was only one man on the ground that day that would have turned down a ride out of that hellhole – at that man was Pitsenbarger.” – F. David Peters, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division
The year is 1999. The tech boom was in full bloom, and so were The Backstreet Boys. Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France, and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” took the world by storm. In the United States, it was a time of peace and prosperity, which explains how “I Want It That Way” actually found comfortable space in our pop music lexicon, but let’s not digress.
Generally speaking, war was not on the minds of John and Jane Q. Citizen in the late 90s, but in “The Last Full Measure”, Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), a family man with a budding career at the Pentagon, is suddenly asked to revisit a particular Vietnam War battle.
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine) died on April 11, 1966 at just 21 years old in a brutal jungle firefight. While the Viet Cong outnumbered U.S. ground troops – 500 to 134 – William volunteered to be lowered into the deadly skirmish to help his fellow soldiers. The decision cost him his life, but not before he expedited the rescue of nine men, tended to the wounded, picked up a gun and fought.
Pitsenbarger’s heroic sacrifice sounds like a Hollywood production, but this is a true story, and rather than solely centering on the actual battle, writer/director Todd Robinson also focuses on William’s Medal of Honor (MOH) appeal, 33 years after he died.
Robinson’s script has Huffman traveling across the county and visiting William’s parents Frank (Christopher Plummer) and Alice (Diane Ladd) and several Vietnam vets to learn about their son and fellow veteran, respectively. Huffman meets veteran after veteran across the country and then periodically finds himself back in D.C. It’s a tad hard to follow where Huffman is at any time while on the road, but it’s easy to see that he’s struggling. Huffman sometimes feels naive and sheepish when speaking to grizzled vets, who each seemingly carry a horrible, internalized brew of guilt, shame, fear, regret, and trauma.
As the veterans recall memories that they’d rather forget, the film repeatedly returns to that fateful 1966 day of chaos, gunfire and explosions, which starkly contrasts with the calm, haunting tones in 1999. Admittedly, the moments of war don’t cinematically stand out on-screen and feel rather thin. They seem repetitive, and it’s tricky picking out the younger versions of the 1999 vets. These time warps into the past offer a reference point, but not necessarily a solid foundation, like they should.
Huffman’s fact-finding mission feels mechanical too. He repeatedly argues with his boss Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and these disagreements may have occurred in real life, but they seem like a shoehorned plot device. Although if a producer or director is looking for a corporate or government creep, please note that Whitford is your guy! He can play those roles blindfolded, and Stanton is effectively bothersome here.
No, the film’s strengths lie with Huffman’s one-one-one interviews with each vet, as a Who’s Who of A-list actors wonderfully grace the screen, including Samuel L. Jackson, William Hurt, Ed Harris, John Savage, and Peter Fonda in his very last film. Each actor delivers their signature moment, as they and Robinson effectively communicate the haunting horrors of war. For instance, Ray (Harris) sports a noticeable network of deep facial wrinkles, seemingly carved from torturous memories over the last 30 years, and Takoda (Jackson) regrets 20 seconds in 1966 that he will never get back.
These impactful conversational-soliloquies reveal genuine feelings about William and the war. Talk of honor and sacrifice flood the screen and our tear ducts. All the one-on-one moments hit the right emotional beats and elevate the otherwise dull mechanics getting from here to there, or from past and present. Whether it’s 1999 or 2020, victims and participants of the most traumatic experience of the 20th century still need attention and care, and “The Last Full Measure” and so many top flight actors answered the call.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: Roadside Attractions; Trailer credits: Movie Coverage