[Review] ‘THE LAST FULL MEASURE’ a noble attempt to understand war and its lingering aftermath

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE LAST FULL MEASURE

Rating: R, 110 minutes.
Director: Todd Robinson
Cast: Sebastian Stan, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Jeremy Irvine, John Savage, Michael Imperioli, Diane Ladd, Bradley Whitford and Christopher Plummer

Miscarriage of honor. That’s the phrase that popped into my head while watching THE LAST FULL MEASURE, a dramatization of the 30-year-old bureaucratic nightmare to get U.S. Air Force pararescueman William Pitsenbarger his posthumous Air Force Cross upgraded to a Medal of Honor. Todd Robinson, who writes and directs, depicts Pitsenbarger’s heroism during an extreme battle during the Vietnam War, but the story is directly tied to the investigation to upgrade his merit of distinction. 

The drama doesn’t have an enigmatic smoking gun reveal that changes perception of what did or did not occur during Operation Abilene in April 1966, as the men of C. Company, 2-16th Infantry, were ambushed by the NVA. Instead, Robinson is interested in the survivors: the men haunted by those memories – where wounds have healed, but the emotional pain remains. To bolster interest, the director corralled himself a mini-Marvel movie reunion with the cast while also adding some notable acting veterans. 

Scott (Sebastian Stan) is a Department of Defense suit whose job becomes tenuous with a shakeup in political leadership in fall 1999. His work on budgetary matters is pushed to the side when introduced to the case of William Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine), the war hero who ultimately sacrificed himself to save other soldiers. His actions got a distinguished medal but not the highest award for valor. 

Fellow pararescueman Sgt. Tulley (William Hurt) has been pushing for years for William to get the upgrade. When the secretary of the DoD makes it a high priority that the matter is investigated, Scott reluctantly takes the case. It is through his interviews with soldiers Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), Ray (Ed Harris), Jimmy (Peter Fonda, in his final role), and Kepper (THE DEER HUNTER’s John Savage) that the pencil-pushing, budgetary checks and balances bureaucrat begins to understand loss and how William impacted others.

Samuel L. Jackson, left, and Sebastian Stan in ‘THE LAST FULL MEASURE.’ Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Robinson means well in taking a complicated subject and making it a more audience-friendly experience. Flashbacks to Operation Abilene are in short bursts with blood and guts at a minimum. Scott’s indifference to the medal review does not make for a compelling protagonist. His greater concern is employment and taking care of his pregnant wife and son — the here and now, not the past. To Scott, the Pitsenbarger investigation is a nuisance and was probably rightfully buried by past administrations.

The bulk of the story lies in the investigation, as Scott travels to different parts of the country and spends time with men like Jimmy (a post-traumatic night owl who calls everyone “Sir”), Ray (who carries the shame of a promise to William that he has not honored) and Takoda (with his buried anguish for what became of those men under his watch). The most reflective moment occurs when Scott visits Kepper in Vietnam, finding splendor in a place of such brutality decades prior.

Through these conversations, Scott’s stoicism and apathy fades and is replaced with a devil may care attitude to right a wrong. Interactions with William’s parents, Frank and Alice (Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd), are particularly touching. Frank sees his son’s death as a tragic loss for him as a father but a more significant loss for William, who would never become one. 

THE LAST FULL MEASURE is at its best when being introspective in dealing with guilt and shame. It fails when trying too hard to be a sentimental tearjerker. Robinson’s problem is not committing to his own material, adding moments that seem to manipulate more than encourage. Plus, the underhandedness in hushing the upgraded commendation on the bureaucratic side is poorly realized and feels forced. Still, this is a strong cast, and each actor does his most to deliver quality performances. The message the film conveys is well understood, and it is clear that Robinson has the utmost respect for veterans and the support they need coming home.

Grade: C

THE LAST FULL MEASURE is now playing in theaters.

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