The last year has been good for war movie lovers. “1917”, “Danger Close”, “Da 5 Bloods”, “The Outpost”, “Greyhound” to name a few. Did the trend continue with “The Last Full Measure”? On first glance, it was doubtful. It took twenty years to film because no studio wanted to finance it. Writer and director Todd Robinson was persistent and finally got it made for $20 million, but it only made $3 million. It must have been tough to hear “I told you so” about such a personal project. In doing research for another film, Robinson had run across the story of William Pitsenbarger. He was intrigued by the tale of a pararescueman who was awarded an Air Force Medal posthumously for actions saving 60 grunts in Vietnam and then had it upgraded to a Medal of Honor many years later. Robinson assembled a cast of veteran actors and was able to film the Vietnam segments in Thailand.
The movie gets off to a roaring start with an American unit from the 1st Army Division being ambushed over the credits. From 1966 South Vietnam, we jump to Washington in 1999. Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) works at the Department of Defense for the Secretary of the Air Force. He is handed the folder of William Pitsenbarger. Pits’ comrades have been pushing for years to have his Air Force Medal upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Huffman reluctantly accepts the shitty, hopeless task. He is not at all interested in justice for Pitsenbarger, since he is a Hollywood stereotype of the amoral bureaucrat. Huffman goes on an odyssey to interview grunts who were impacted by the pararescueman’s efforts. These awkward encounters are intercut with the ambush.
The veterans Huffman interviews are stereotypes too. Tully (William Hurt) was a comrade of Pits who is determined to get his buddy the Medal of Honor because he personally knows the sacrifice he made. Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson) has guilt issues from the ambush. Mott (Ed Harris) rants about the brass sending them out as bait. Burr (Peter Fonda in his last role) is just plain nuts. Kepper (John Savage) lives a monastic existence in Vietnam and has a butterfly garden on the spot of the ambush. If that’s not enough heavy-weights for you, throw in Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd as William’s saintly parents. They supported his going. If not their son, whose? It takes a while, but Huffman is eventually ready to risk his upward bound career for justice. Now that he has overcome his own lack of compassion, he has to overcome his own bureaucracy. And we’re not just talking about the brass, we’re also talking about politicians. Double military justice villains!
I know I have been a bit snarky about the movie, but it actually is better than you would expect. Yes, it has tropes common in Vietnam veteran and military justice movies. Although the veterans are stereotypes, Robinson has great actors playing the roles. Which is bad news for the unknown actors playing their younger selves. Big combat boots to fill. Plus you get Christopher Plummer as the father. I haven’t even mentioned yet that Dale F’in Dye appears as the general who used the unit as bait. Yet, you’ll be surprised by his character. The movie does not hammer an anti-Vietnam War or anti-military theme. It is not lazy on PTSD. Tully and the others earned their demons.
The combat is generic and a bit overblown. But the unit did suffer 80% casualties, so it seems realistic in a Hollywood sort of reenactment. You definitely get the impression that Pitsenbarger did something extraordinarily brave when he waved off his helicopter. The spider holes and snipers in trees are nice touches. Pits marks an M for morphine on a wounded grunts forehead. You can tell Dale Dye was on set.
The movie deserves credit for sincerity. The orchestral music backs this up. But it does not cross the line into cloying. However, you might want to have some tissues handy. It jerks tears effectively. Mr. Pitsenbarger is dying of cancer and Tully has survivor’s guilt. In the hands of these actors, prepare to have your emotions manipulated, in a good way. Speaking of, it is apparent that this movie and “Da 5 Bloods” has solved the problem of making a Vietnam War movie with a veteran ensemble by setting it in the present day and flashing back with a bunch of star wannabes.
The whole Huffman half of the movie has the feel of Hollywood enhancement for plot purposes. It is very predictable. The reason to watch the movie is the accuracy with which it portrays the action of one of the bravest men who served in Vietnam. William Pitsenbarger was involved in 300 rescue missions before his death. On April 11, 1966, he saved sixty men’s lives at the cost of his own. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor and an Army general downgraded it to an Air Force Medal. He was the first Air Force enlisted man to receive that award. That was quite an honor, but the downgrading (apparently due to lack of documentation) added injustice to the story and made it cinema-worthy. This movie does an admirable job bringing his story to the screen. By the way, stick around, after the final credits there are interviews with some of the men.
GRADE = A-