January 22, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Todd Robinson
Culture Representation: Set in the United States and Vietnam, the male-centric military drama “The Last Full Measure” centers on predominantly white (and a few African American) characters who are connected in some way to the U.S. Air Force.
Culture Clash: The conflicting agendas of politicians, military officials and war veterans are depicted in the process of deciding if a deceased military man will get the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Culture Audience: “The Last Full Measure” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about military veterans and the Vietnam War.
The military/political drama “The Last Full Measure” gets its title from the phrase used to describe the ultimate sacrifice that a military person can give in service. Inspired by a true story, this appropriately solemn movie chronicles the journey of Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (a fictional chracter played by Sebastian Stan), who investigates a decades-long request for the Congressional Medal of Honor to be given to Vietnam War hero William Pitsenbarger, a U.S. Air Force Pararescue medic who died in combat in 1966, at the age of 21.
Pitsenbarger (nicknamed Pits) lost his life during a battle at Xa Cam My that was part of a secretive mission called Operation Abilene. He was a para jumper (or PJ), who saved approximately 60 men in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division during his military service in the Vietnam War. The movie’s story unfolds in a way that is similar to a mystery, since Scott uncovers secrets that certain people in the government do not want to be revealed. According to “The Last Full Measure” writer/director Todd Robinson (who tried to get this movie made for 20 years), the fictional Scott Huffman character is a composite of himself, historian Parker Hayes and unnamed Pentagon staffers who fought for Pitsenbarger to get the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The beginning of the movie takes place in Washington, D.C., in 1999, when F. Whitten Peters (played by Linus Roache) abruptly retired from his position as U.S. Secretary of the Air Force. Knowing that he’ll soon be out of a job because he worked on Peters’ staff, Scott reluctantly takes an assignment from the smirky and arrogant Carlton Stanton (played by Bradley Whitford), a Pentagon public-relations employee who delights in giving to Scott what they both perceive as a trivial and distracting task—looking into a Congressional Medal of Honor request that has been rejected for decades. (Viewers can see from the get-go that Carlton will be the movie’s power-hungry villain who will do whatever it takes to climb the government ladder.)
At the time he is given the assignment, Scott is more concerned about where he’s going to find his next job. He’s the father of a kindergarten-age son, and he’s expecting his second child with his pregnant wife Tara (played by Alison Sudol), who encourages him to approach the investigation with compassion and an open mind. The three people who are the biggest advocates for Pits to get his posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor are retired Air Force Sgt. Tom Tulley (William Hurt), who was Pits’ best friend and mission partner, and Pits’ parents Frank and Alice (played by Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd), who have never fully recovered from the untimely loss of their son.
Scott interviews them, as well as several U.S. military veterans who were eyewitnesses to Pits’ bravery, including Billy Takoda (played by Samuel L. Jackson), Ray Mott (played by Ed Harris), Jimmy Burr (played Peter Fonda, in his last movie role, which is essentially a camero) and Kepper (John Savage), who still lives in Vietnam. Scott travels all the way to Vietnam to interview Kepper, and during his conversation with Kepper, Scott has a powerful awakening. Through the interviews, Scott pieces together the puzzle of the ill-fated Operation Abilene that led the U.S. soldiers into a Viet Cong ambush. Showing uncommon bravery, Pitsenbarger refused a chance to escape and instead stayed on the battleground to help save lives and attend to the wounded, while also taking up arms to defend his comrades. The battle scenes are shown in flashbacks, with Jeremy Irvine portraying Pits.
But what really caused that deadly ambush at Xa Cam My? And how much did the U.S. government know but chose to hide from the public? As Scott gets closer to the truth, he knows that revealing the truth could destroy his career and possibly put his life in danger. It could also kill the chances of Pits getting a Congressional Medal of Honor if the full story comes out about Operation Abilene. It’s a tricky dilemma, because some of the same government people whose votes are needed to approve the Congressional Medal of Honor going to Pits are also the same people who could squash that request if Scott goes public with the full story.
During the course of the movie, viewers see Scott’s transformation as a somewhat rigid character who tends to see issues in black and white to someone who begins to understand that issues come in many shades of grey. For example, in one scene in the movie, Scott is assembling a crib and he refuses to look at the instructions, because “that would be cheating,” he says—an indication of not only his hardline approach on how to solve problems but also an assertion of how he perceives his strong masuculinity. But as the stories about Operation Abilene unfold, Scott begins to question his views on ethics in the context of war. He must also confront issues of patriotism and personal sacrifice—issues that can sometimes be at odds with each other and can be tested if it involves reporting government corruption.
Fortunately, Stan does an admirable job of portraying this metamorphosis in a realistic way. He and co-star Hurt have a few emotional scenes in the movie, which doesn’t veer too much into melodrama for the characters. In addition, “The Last Full Measure” respectfully handles the issues of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and how it not only affects war veterans but also their loved ones. The movie responsibly shows how people can react to PTSD in different ways and how military machismo sometimes hinders people from dealing with these issues in a beneficial and healing way.
Because “The Last Full Measure” is a male-oriented film and the military is a male-dominated field, the female characters don’t have much to do except play “the supportive wife” or “the supportive administration employee.” However, that doesn’t mean the women in this movie are doormats. In particular, Ladd’s Alice Pitsenbarger character shows inspiring determination to keep pushing for the family’s cause when her ailing husband’s health issues indicate that he won’t be around much longer.
“The Last Full Measure” is an engrossing and heartfelt story that might seem like a paint-by-numbers military movie because the ending is very easy to predict, but it stands out for its top-notch cast of stars (who all deliver convincing performances) and the fact that Vietnam War stories about the U.S. Air Force are rarely told in movies. At the end of the film, “The Last Full Measure” points out the extremely low percentage of Air Force people and even lower percentage of enlisted airpeople who have received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The movie is ultimately a tribute to U.S. military people, especially those who made personal sacrifices during wars, whether or not they made it out alive.
Roadside Attractions will release “The Last Full Measure” in U.S. cinemas on January 24, 2020.