In the Gettysburg address, President Abraham Lincoln paid tribute to those who fought and died for their cause, to which they “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Lincoln’s description of the ultimate sacrifice provides the title for Todd Robinson’s “The Last Full Measure,” which depicts the long quest to award Air Force pararescue medic William Pitsenbarger the Medal of Honor 34 years after he perished in the Vietnam War.
The Medal of Honor, the military’s highest distinction, has been awarded to just over 3,500 service members who have distinguished themselves with extraordinary acts of valor in combat since the Civil War. “The Last Full Measure” is about the significance of the decoration, but as the story unfolds, it’s clear it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination.
It’s so important to his surviving Air Force buddies and the Army soldiers he rescued that Pitsenbarger receive this Medal of Honor, an upgrade from the Air Force Cross he initially received, that they spend three decades in pursuit of the distinction. By 1999, they eventually get the file on the desk of D.C. bureaucrat Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), who is saddled with the task of pushing through the Medal of Honor request before Pitsenbarger’s dying father (Christopher Plummer) passes away. What at first seems like an onerous task to the ambitious (and a bit snarky) Scott soon becomes a cathartic emotional exploration and bonding experience for the veterans who remain prisoners to their own painful memories of war.
The process of putting together the Medal of Honor file becomes a way to clean out the emotional wounds, as Scott bears witness to the men reckoning with their past. At the behest of Pitsenbarger’s friend Tulley (William Hurt), Scott sets off to interview Army vets Billy (Samuel L. Jackson), Jimmie (the late Peter Fonda), Ray (Ed Harris) and Kepper (John Savage), whom Pitsenbarger helped to save in Vietnam during the bloody Operation Abilene.
In a series of messy and chaotic flashbacks, the story of Pitsenbarger’s heroism unfolds: Sent to rescue a battalion of men pinned down in the jungle by the Viet Cong, the 21-year-old Air Force medic lowered himself to the ground to treat the wounded and fight off the enemy, waving away the helicopter as it tried to pick him up.
It’s a shame the flashbacks are so harried, as the gravity of Pitsenbarger’s actions could have landed more fully with the audience. It’s also sidetracked by an underdeveloped storyline about the misguided nature of Operation Abilene and the reasons for that. But fundamentally, “The Last Full Measure” is about the healing process for the veterans and Pitsenbarger’s parents as they pursue recognition for their friend, son and hero. Although the script and aesthetic are rather melodramatic and oftentimes overly sentimental, the star-studded cast elevates the material with nuanced performances.
What one walks away with from “The Last Full Measure” isn’t necessarily the heroism of Pitsenbarger, though his personal sacrifice was immense. What the film reveals is the deep shame and trauma vets contend with, as survivors who made it out alive, as fallible and flawed men who did their best under extreme violence and duress and have to live with those choices for the rest of their lives. What “The Last Full Measure” demonstrates is how powerful it can be to shed light on these experiences, through testimony, bearing witness and, yes, ceremonial recognition.
★★½ “The Last Full Measure,” with Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, William Hurt, Peter Fonda, John Savage, Jeremy Irvine, Diane Ladd. Written and directed by Todd Robinson. 110 minutes. Rated R for war violence, and language. Opens Jan. 24 at multiple theaters.