A film review by Craig J. Koban April 30, 2020

THE LAST FULL MEASURE jj

2020, R, 116 mins.

Samuel L. Jackson as Takoda  /  Sebastian Stan as Scott Huffman  /  Jeremy Irvine as William Pitsenbarger  /  Christopher Plummer as Franky Pitsenbarger  /  Bradley Whitford as Carlton Stanton  /  Ed Harris as Ray Mott  /  Michael Imperioli as Jay Ford  /  Diane Ladd as Alice Pitsenbarger  /  Linus Roache as Whit Peters

Written and directed by Todd Robinson

THE LAST FULL MEASURE is an earnest and noble minded Vietnam War themed fact based drama that's unfortunately mired by some lackluster creative discipline and execution.  

It tells a story that absolutely should be seen, that of war hero William H. Pitsenbarger, who personally saved over sixty men during one of the U.S. campaign's deadliest days on April  11, 1966.  "Pitts" (his nickname) took matters into his own hands and - without any orders to do so whatsoever - left his rescue chopper and put his own life on the line to ensure his comrade's safety.  He tragically died in the process, and was up for the Medal of Honor, which was unceremoniously downgraded to the much lower ranked Air Force Cross due to - at the time reported - insufficient records as to his heroic feats. 

Like...wow.

THE LAST FULL MEASURE details the arduous and uphill battle - thirty-plus years later - to get Pitsenbarger the Medal of Honor that he rightfully deserved in the hearts and minds of those that he saved.  The fact that this soldier was not even supposed to be on the ground, let alone leave his rescue helicopter, on the day in question is testament enough to his unwavering gallantry, and a cruel reminder of all of the short-sighted and frankly imbecilic bureaucratic actions back home that sidestepped his deeds altogether and swept them under the rug.  As a tale of undocumented valor finally being given its due public credit, THE LAST FULL MEASURE has the makings of a powerful war drama in showcasing the survivors - ravaged by decades of guilt - making the decision to come out and join the cause to ensure their fallen brother receives the proper accolades.  The film is backed by an extraordinary ensemble of multiple Oscar nominated and winner actors, many of whom give rock solid performances that give the proceedings here some much needed dramatic weight and gravitas.  Regrettably, writer/director Todd Robinson's handling of this material is of the TV-movie-of-the-week variety in terms of being well meaning and sincerely derived, but fairly pedestrian and soft pedaled for the most part.

Set mostly in 1999 with a lot of semi-awkwardly inserted flashbacks to the Vietnam War in April of 1966 (more on that in a bit), THE LAST FULL MEASURE is less about Pitsenbarger himself than it is about Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) and his valiant attempts to find the dead solider some renewed prestige.  Huffman is a determined and ambitious Senator that wants to elevate himself above his low level status, and early in the film when he's given the Medal of Honor investigation request made by Pitsenbarger's BFF on the battlefield (a stoic and strong William Hurt), he dismisses it with mocking indifference; it's a petty roadblock assignment on his way up the government ladder.  Huffman starts to whistle a different tune, though, when he starts to dig a bit deeper, especially in the form of testimonials from Pitsenbarger's kindly parents (the late Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd), with the father hoping something can be fast tracked soon before he succumbs to cancer.  Huffman then gets a wealth of new details from the other surviving soldiers of April of '66, including Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), Burr (the late Peter Fonda, his last role), Kepper (John Savage), and Mott (Ed Harris) - I mean...what a cast!  The more dirt Hoffman digs up the more he begins to realize that a vast decades-long governmental conspiracy has been afoot to deny Pitts his MoH, leaving Hoffman having a vast change of heart of his assignment's worthiness.

 

 

Of the good things that THE LAST FULL MEASURE does is in its putting of multiple anguished faces on the map of a deeply polarizing war and chronicling how Vietnam has left them with years upon years of physical and emotional scars.  There have been many Vietnam War films that have dealt with post-traumatic stress, but THE LAST FULL MEASURE is more about survivor guilt that's spawned from that.  The film also wants to relay a generation's worth of collective anger in vets that have felt that the American public and government have all but forgotten them and their sacrifices.  Again, it's the rich and fully lived-in performances that win the day here, whether it be in the nicely underplayed turns from Plummer and Ladd to the unfathomable levels of internalized hurt that Hurt brings to his beleaguered vet. Then there's also Jackson's nuanced turn as Takoda (who, at first, takes a disliking to Hoffman, then gradually opens up) and the very meta casting of Savage (who famously appeared in the Nam centric THE DEER HUNTER).  My favorite performance, though, is from Fonda as his still shell shocked soldier that hasn't slept a day in 32 years due to his experiences back in the war.  A worse actor would have played this role up to broad stereotype, but Fonda thanklessly plays him with complex layers that teeters between relatable resentment and deranged madness.

Having said all of that, the film does a disserve to the Hoffman character himself (who is a composite character, based on what I've read) when it comes to authentically portraying his enlightenment arc to the deeper truths of how the government has subverted the truth of what Pitsenbarger did all those years ago.  Hoffman follows a familiar and mostly preordained story trajectory (a staunch non-believer turned into a true believer and champion of the truth), but his transformation doesn't feel as organic as it should have been.  That, and Stan (a good actor when given the right material) is kind of bland and lacking conviction in the role.  This brings us to Pitsenbarger himself, who's portrayed in a multitude of flashbacks by Jeremy Irvine, which pepper the story with details here and there about him, but we never really grow to learn who this guys is, where he came from, and what led to his motivated choices that saved all of those souls in the war.  He's a hero, to be sure, but we only get second hand accounts of this man that try to develop him, which has the negative side-effect of making this persona come off more as a mysterious cipher to be unlocked than a fully realized and well developed protagonist.  The more I watched THE LAST FULL MEASURE the more I began to ask myself why a whole historical war drama simply wasn't told about him from his perspective.

The ricocheting nature of the script doesn't help matters either, and Hoffman's jumping back and forth in time is, during many points, chaotic and confusing in terms of character dynamics and plot particulars (also, many of the young performers look nothing like their older counterparts, leading to even more visual confusion).  I also think that Hoffman trudges overboard in the third act in terms of going for methodical sentiment, hoping to move us to no end and elicit multiple tears from audience members.  The dramatic manipulation here - and some clunky, would-be heartrending dialogue - seems a bit stilted and forced, and during a section of the film where a more less-is-more restrained approach to the underlining material would have worked wonders.  Lastly, I'm not sure what this film desires to say about the Vietnam War itself.  Obviously, this is a drama about correcting governmental wrongdoing in regards to a war vet, but THE LAST FULL MEASURE is stuck in simple minded jingoistic mode, asking us to respect its remarkably courageous soldiers (and they do deserve such respect) while simultaneously turning a blind eye to many of the more questionable aspects of America's involvement in Vietnam.  It creates this weird moral disconnect in the film that's hard to overlook.

Still, THE LAST FULL MEASURE is awfully hard to sharply scorn.  The film's heart is most definitely in the right place in shining a spotlight on Pitsenbarger, his actions, the people he rescued, and the aftermath of injustice that came in the war's wake to give this man the proper commendation for his incomparable acts of pure heroism.  And the dream team actors gathered together here more than make this film watchable.  Yet, THE LAST FULL MEASURE was dumped in cinemas pre-pandemic back in January to little or no fanfare or marketing push, later to fizzle into obscurity.  That ironically mirrors the tale of Pitzenbarger himself.  THE LAST FULL MEASURE is a laudable effort, but it nevertheless struggles to find a truly worthy and compelling manner to bring Pitts' story to the silver screen.

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