“The Last Full Measure” Is A Restrained Crusade For Justice

There are a few different movies competing for attention within The Last Full Measure. One is a traditional Vietnam War tale. Another is a political drama about the gridlock in Washington that can politicize even the most basic of acts. Yet another is a portrait of grief. They all bounce off each other here, dulling each’s effectiveness. Now, the final product overall is just moving enough and just well enough made to warrant a recommendation, but it’s clear that this began with far grander ambitions. In fact, it’s not hard to see that this perhaps was even thought of as a potential awards vehicle once upon a time. Instead, it’s just a decently solid drama, with a good lead turn by Sebastian Stan, that hints at something more.

The film is based on a true story and details the quest to reward Air Force medic and Vietnam War hero William H. Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine), with the Medal of Honor, as well as the controversy it stirred up. Pitsenbarger was a U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen who saved over sixty men before being killed. Given a lesser medal, his fellow soldier Tulley (William Hurt), as well as his parents (Diane Ladd and Christopher Plummer) campaign for an upgrade. Three decades later, the latest request reaches Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Stan), an ambitious up and comer who couldn’t be less interested. To him, the facts are simple. Pitsenbarger acted heroically, turning down an offer to escape on the last helicopter out of a combat zone. Instead, he stayed behind in order to help the Army’s 1st Infantry Division during Vietnam’s most devastating battle. It cost him his life. However, the required paperwork and new information isn’t available, so it’s not going to happen. Then, Scott begins to dig a little bit deeper. He seeks out and takes down the testimony of several Army veterans who witnessed Pitsenbarger’s extraordinary display of combat valor. They include Burr (Peter Fonda), Mott (Ed Harris), and Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), each of whom fills in some blanks. However, as he learns more about Pitsenbarger and becomes convinced of his worthiness, he uncovers a fairly large conspiracy behind the denial of the medal. Spurred by the sacrifice, he opts to risk his career in order to get the man justice. Todd Robinson writes and directs, with cinematography by Byron Werner, while Phillip Klein composed the score. The rest of the cast includes Michael Imperioli, Amy Madigan, Bradley Whitford, and more.

It’s debatable whether the flick needed to go bigger or go smaller, but at times, it seems stuck in the middle. Luckily, the strong cast helps to make up for that. Sebastian Stan proves an effective leading man, while the likes of Peter Fonda, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, Diane Ladd, Christopher Plummer, and Bradley Whitford provide able support. Whitford is unfortunately saddled with a stock pseudo villain role, which doesn’t suit him, but he leans into the asshole qualities of the character. What’s mainly missing is Jeremy Irvine leaving more of a mark. For someone the entire project is focused on, he never feels like an impactful character. The structure of the story prevents that, but Irvine could have done more to help. The rest of the cast makes up for it, but it’s a notable shortcoming.

The Last Full Measure does clearly have its heart in the right place, that’s not up for debate. One might quibble and say that it doesn’t hold anyone’s feet to the fire, perhaps even being too respectful to various institutions, but it does create a film largely devoid of overt cinematic cliches. The aforementioned Whitford character comes closest, but other than that, it focuses much more on educating about a hero and displaying the valor of Vietnam veterans, as well as the toll it took on them. The more Todd Robinson focuses on that, the sturdier the ground his project is on.

This weekend, audiences looking for solid drama can do a lot worse than The Last Full Measure. It’s hardly spectacular, but it’s better than the January release date suggests, that’s for sure. Keep your expectations in check and you’ll find an occasionally moving, largely compelling, and deeply respectful movie. There’s a better film to be made from similar subject matter, but at least the one we got is worthy of a mild recommendation…

Be sure to check out The Last Full Measure, in theaters on Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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