'The Last Full Measure' ★★★
There's been a lot of talk recently about so-called “dad movies,” partly sparked by the success of “Ford v Ferrari.” And when it comes to that driving flick, a new movie says, “Hold onto your Dockers.”
“The Last Full Measure” – which details the fight to bestow the Medal of Honor to medic William H. Pitsenbarger – is catnip for dads, a true-life Vietnam war film that offers valor, a band of brothers, some dogged and righteous steadfastness, honor and grace. It also has a lot of loving things to say about fathers. (Dads, smuggle in Kleenex.)
Director and writer Todd Robinson has not just assembled some of the best older actors working today – Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Amy Madigan, Diane Ladd and the late Peter Fonda – but also elicited some astonishing dramatic moments on film.
But though Robinson handles the first half with skill and care – weaving battle scenes with craggy portraits of the survivors today – the second half disappoints as he amps and warps the Stateside struggle to get Pitsenbarger the medal, even creating a fictional Pentagon official charged with investigating the merits of the case. The film is “inspired by a true story,” which means Robinson has given himself license to mess around with truth.
That's a shame. There's enough natural drama in the story of Pitsenbarger, who on April 11, 1966, was aboard a helicopter trying to rescue wounded Army soldiers surrounded by Viet Cong troops. The 21-year-old Air Force medic chose to drop down and help winch soldiers up to the chopper.
In four hours of hell, Pitsenbarger successfully evacuated nine soldiers before the choppers had to flee under increasingly heavy fire. Refusing multiple orders to evacuate, Pitsenbarger ran into enemy fire several times to drag wounded soldiers back to safety and began treating their wounds. The next day, his lifeless body was found lying next to men he didn't know, but gave his life trying to save.
Obvious Medal of Honor work, right? But there were bureaucratic hurdles – Pitsenbarger was Air Force and the men he saved were infantry – and lingering outrage when it emerged that the soldiers were being used as bait to flush out the enemy. Pitsenbarger never got the nation's highest military honor and the soldiers he saved that day waged a campaign to get it for him. His mother and father were finally handed the medal during a ceremony in 2000.
Robinson creates Pentagon lawyer Scott Huffman to sift through the 30-year evidence and try to find out why the award wasn't initially given and how he can get it now. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” he is told by the character played by Hurt, who turns in an astonishingly moving performance.
But Huffman, played by Sebastian Stan, is reluctant to get involved – “I don't have time for this,” he wails – and much of the film is his growing embrace of the veteran community. The effort comes to a head when he must decide on his own honor or his career. There's a double-cross, Pentagon intrigue, secretly taped conversations and a big Hollywood-style confrontation. It's all hooey. There's even music reminiscent of “House of Cards” to hammer home a nefarious conspiracy.
Much better is the portrayal of Vietnam vets still working through issues of guilt, PTSD and alienation. Huffman visits each vet at their homes and they all tell vibrant stories. Jackson has a wonderful aria in which he calls himself “a refugee in my own country.” Fonda plays a veteran so damaged by the war he stays awake at night. Harris' character is broken and anguished.
Plummer plays Pitsenbarger's very ill father with such grace and good will that dads in the audience may have tears streaming down their faces as they listen to the actor describe how he regrets never getting to see his son fall in love or have a child, because only then could he understand fully how much his father loved him. “Dying isn't harder than losing a child,” he says.
That – along with the character sketches of veterans – are the best parts of the film, not the conspiracies or the endless pats on the backs at the end. Pitsenbarger and his family deserve our endless thanks. That is clear. Despite its flaws, this movie reminds us all of the sacrifices made by soldiers and to be mindful of how we treat them when they come home.