Starring Sebastian Stan. Rating unavailable
A moving if somewhat self-congratulating effort, The Last Full Measure is as much a tribute to aging A-list actors as it is to the Vietnam veterans they so lovingly portray.
The title is drawn from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which the doomed president hoped that “the last full measure of devotion” of the Civil War fallen didn’t die in vain. Of course, nothing at all was gained from the loss of 50,000 Americans in Southeast Asia, with the same number succumbing to drugs and suicide on return—not to mention the million or so Vietnamese, plus many more Laotians and Cambodians, lost to U.S. adventurism.
There’s little context found in the new movie, written and directed by Todd Robinson, although his documentary Stand and Be Counted, about the role of popular music in social changes, displayed his awareness of history. Here, he focuses on the effects of war on those who simply happen to be caught in its jaws. The story circles around air-force pararescue jumper William Pitsenbarger, who gave his not-quite-22-year-old life to aid dozens of men wounded in a pitched battle in 1966.
The film unfolds more than 30 years later, late in the Clinton administration, via fictional Pentagon investigator Scott Huffman, played by Captain America’s Romanian-born Sebastian Stan. This callow lad has been tasked by his careerist boss (The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford) with uncovering why the saintly Pitsenbarger never received the Congressional Medal of Honor he obviously deserved.
Huffman gathers testimony from survivors of that firefight, allowing the director to cut between scenes of the fateful day (with War Horse’s Jeremy Irvine as the brave helicopter medic) and his on-the-road interviews with the ex-grunts, now riddled with PTSD, phobias, and fierce depression. The movie shines brightest with stunning performances from Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda—in his final screen appearance—as scarred army vets lobbying for Washington to honour the air-force hero they never met until the bullets flew.
Adding to the lustre are Diane Ladd and Christopher Plummer as Pitsenbarger’s aged parents, Amy Madigan as one vet’s protective mate, and—in a neat nod to past ’Nam tales—John Savage, playing a “mud soldier” who stayed in-country to heal. (The ’Nam scenes were shot in Thailand and Costa Rica.)
Without addressing the forces that put those boys in the wrong place at the worst time, the movie stays just this side of oversentimentalizing their journeys. The bigger problem is that as young Huffman travels his expected empathy arc, he becomes a kind of son-confessor to the wounded boomers, and their interactions become too uniform. Every one of them has a secret regret, it turns out. But I already knew the secret going in; it was called Vietnam.