Film Review: ‘The Last Full Measure’: A True Tale of Vietnam War Valor

January 30, 2020 Updated: February 1, 2020
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R | | Drama, War | 24 January 2020 (USA)

“The Last Full Measure” is a true story about valor. It’s based on Vietnam War hero William H. Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine), an Air Force parajumper who flew on helicopters into hot landing zones and airlifted out wounded soldiers. During the vicious Operation Abilene on April 10 in 1966, “Pits” waved off his chopper and fought alongside 60-some soldiers from the Army’s First Infantry Division, pinned down in a jungle ambush—none of whom he personally knew. He was killed by a sniper.

movie poster
Movie poster of “The Last Full Measure.” (Roadside Attractions)

Valor

“Valor” is one of those words that’s currently anchoring itself in the public consciousness, just like “warrior” did in the early 1980s. The 2012 film “Act of Valor,” starring active-duty Navy SEALs, had a lot to do with that.

Currently, valor can be stolen, but there are now personnel who track down and prosecute those civilians falsely claiming to have had careers as elite special operations warriors. There’s clearly a spiritual movement afoot that’s restoring our eroded American values by shining a light on the great deeds that often go unnoticed. “The Last Full Measure” is a tribute to our armed forces and the valor that accrues just by being of service, as well as from acts—such as Pitsenbarger’s—of great heroism.

cemetary headstones
Actual burial ground plaques of Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger, in “The Last Full Measure.” (Roadside Attractions)

Pitsenbarger’s story is told by the telling of a different story, namely, the quiet, 30-year, post-service war fought by his brothers in arms to get Pits’s sacrifice the recognition it deserved, aided by Defense Department staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan).

In 1999, the young Mr. Huffman was ambitiously negotiating Pentagon bureaucracy with the customary ruthlessness required for that career. He was assigned by his boss to review a longstanding request to replace Pitsenbarger’s less-than-appropriate Air Force medal with a posthumous Medal of Honor. This is the highest military medal of all, the one Eisenhower would have forgone his presidency to possess.

The classic character arc ensues: Firstly, it’s an annoying dead-end assignment for an ambitious ladder-climber; Huffman would rather not be hounded by Tulley, one of Pitsenbarger’s fellow pararescuemen (William Hurt) into beginning the investigation.

two men talking at table
Sebastian Stan (L) and William Hurt in “The Last Full Measure.” (Roadside Attractions)

Because out of approximately 248 Vietnam War Medals of Honor issued, only 14 have gone to Air Force personnel. And only three were awarded to Air Force enlisted men like William Pitsenbarger.  Huffman doesn’t like those odds.

Secondly, Huffman finally gets perspective on what he’s up against; there’s a conspiracy afoot, the revelation of which could cost him his job. He doesn’t feel up to that task. This leads to one of the film’s most powerful moments: the archetype of the excellent spouse, bolstering her man in his time of fear and need when he’s on the verge of quitting. Huffman’s wife giving him the strength to carry on is similar to Jean Arthur’s character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” providing resolve to Jimmy Stewart’s—and for the same reason—to honor the truth whatever the outcome.

Two men talking in woods
Sebastian Stan (L) and Samuel L. Jackson in “The Last Full Measure.” (Roadside Attractions)

Thirdly, as Huffman journeys to visit the soldiers whose lives Pitsenbarger saved (Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda) and listens to their war stories, and as he also visits Pits’s parents (Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd),

old man and his wife
Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd in “The Last Full Measure.” (Roadside Attractions)

and hears their stoic heartbreak about the Flexible Flyer that’s still in the shed, he’s overwhelmed with resolve to lay it all on the line, to stand alongside the friends who toiled for 30 years, and to facilitate the honoring—with all parties involved present—of the blinding light and heat of Airman Pitsenbarger’s sacrifice.

family at thanksgiving table
(L–R) Sebastian Stan, Diane Ladd, Asher Miles Fallica, Christopher Plumber, Alison Sudol in “The Last Full Measure.” (Roadside Attractions)

After all, one soldier’s recollection of Pitsenbarger rappelling into the firefight to save him was of seeing an angel. That type of thing tends to not be a physical vision; people of faith know that’s a straight-up vision of the higher beings that are present in times of such incandescent selflessness.

Seeing the Repercussions of One’s Deeds

There’s a bit of a conspiracy and cover-up subplot regarding Operation Abilene, but to tell it would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that it’s of a similar nature to this one from “Top Gun”:

Viper (Tom Skerritt):
What I’m about to tell you is classified; it could end my career. We were in the worst dogfight I could’ve dreamed of. There were bogeys like fireflies all over the sky. His F-4 was hit; he could’ve made it back, stayed in, it killed three of them before he bought it.

Maverick (Tom Cruise):
How come I never heard that before?

Viper:
Well, that’s not something the Navy tells families, especially when the fight happened over the wrong line on some map.

The military covers up things for various reasons: some to lessen the grief of relatives, some to keep egg off its face, some to avoid lawsuits. Regardless, “The Last Full Measure” will undoubtedly be seen by veterans and their families, because they already understand sacrifice and the need to honor and pay tribute to it. The nonstop streams of biker-veterans roaring across our great nation, performing rituals of remembrance at burial grounds, is testimony to a mindset that really needs to be felt daily by all Americans againnot just on Veterans Day.

statue of soldier
Statue of Airman 1st Class, William H. Pitsenbarger, posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Roadside Atractions)

Self-help gurus stress living in the moment, and gratitude. Not taking for granted the brilliant sacrifices made by our armed forces—so that we can wander about with our faces in our phones, worrying about first-world problems—would go a long way toward dissipating the depression, loneliness, and isolation that is the resultant paradox of not holding our hard-won freedoms near and dear enough.

The last scene, of the award ceremony when group after group of servicemen and women, family members, and various and assorted people touched by this courageous airman’s valorous deed are asked to stand—and one can see how vast the repercussions of good deeds are—it’s truly moving.

Vietnam soldier stepping out of helicopter
The real-life William Pitsenbarger. (Roadside Atractions)

“The Last Full Measure”
Director: Todd Robinson
Starring: Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Peter Fonda, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, Linus Roache, John Savage, Amy Madigan, Bradley Whitford, Jeremy Irvine
Rating: R
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 24, 2020
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch