As filmmaking, The Last Full Measure stumbles under the bumpy pacing and deck-stacking of writer-director Todd Robinson (Phantom). But the film gets up and pushes forward owing to Robinson’s passion to get this true story told. The subject is William Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine), a U.S. Air Force pararescue jumper (also known as a PJ) who personally saved 60 men during a Vietnam rescue mission on April 11, 1966. When offered a chance to save his own ass by taking the last chopper out of the bloody combat known as Operation Abilene, Pitsenbarger chose instead to stay behind to aid the evacuation of wounded soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division. For losing his own life to enemy sniper fire, Pits — as the soldiers affectionately called him — was awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” beyond the call of duty.
It’s a hell of tale. But instead of telling it full-out, Robinson marshals his forces toward another tale, one of conspicuous injustice. Yes, Pits was awarded the Medal of Honor, but not until December 8th, 2000, decades after his bravery was officially recorded. The hows and whys of that delay, including coverups and institutional corruption, is the core of The Last Full Measure. Robinson’s blood is up, understandably, but in resorting to Hollywood shortcuts and considerable dramatic license, Robinson has reduced the valor of Pits to flashbacks in favor of foregrounding the detective story that finally won this indisputable hero his due.
Enter Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), a Pentagon investigator who’s put on the case of deciding whether Pits actually deserves his country’s highest honor, rare indeed for an enlisted airman. Huffman is a careerist who resents his boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), for giving him what he considers the busy work of interviewing the surviving soldiers saved by Pits. With a wife (Alison Sudol) and family to support, Huffman is eager to climb up the next rung of the D.C. ladder. But as he begins to speak with the soldiers, many suffering with PTSD, Huffman finds his life changed in fundamental ways.
Stan, best known for playing Winter Solider Bucky Barnes in the MCU, is a solid actor hemmed in by portraying a composite character based on Robinson’s research. His slow enlightenment is meant to be ours as Huffman begins to see the extent of Pits’ heroism, the physical and emotional toll inflicted by war on those he rescued, and the government’s self-serving attempt to sweep his accomplishment under the carpet due to a scandalous incident of friendly fire that Huffman’s investigation would expose.
An A-list cast of Oscar winners and nominees has been recruited for these roles. And there’s no questioning the talents of William Hurt as Tully, Pits’ best friend, Samuel L. Jackson as the guilt-ridden Takoda, Ed Harris as the reclusive Mott, The Deer Hunter’s John Savage as the haunted Kepper, and especially the late Peter Fonda in his final role as a former soldier who has still not adjusted to life after wartime. These damaged men are willing to open painful old wounds not for themselves or even a piece of ribbon for Pits, but for his parents, Frank (Christopher Plummer) and Alice (Diane Ladd) — both superb — who have spent decades trying to win their son the public honor he so richly deserves.
Robinson has a tendency to hit his points hard, robbing the film of subtlety and moral complexity in exchange for fueling righteous indignation in the audience. Irvine plays Pits with unvarying valor, seldom letting human elements of doubt and vulnerability intrude on his purpose. The moral quagmire of Vietnam is sidestepped in favor of shining a light on heroism. The film’s title comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, in which the Civil War president honored the sacrifice of those who — like Pits — gave “the last full measure of devotion.” Robinson’s film only hints at the corruption embedded in a system meant to ensure Lincoln’s ideal of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Robinson means to leave you in tears, no matter how heavy-handed his approach. But the sentimental ending that suggests all loose ends have been tied up does a disservice to the battle ahead and a war still to be won in the name of the people left to pick up the pieces.