The story of William Pitsenbarger, a U.S. Air Force Pararescue medic who risked his life in Vietnam to aid his comrades, as well as the decades-later efforts of fellow vets to see him posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, is undeniably moving — which goes a long way toward explaining how Todd Robinson enlisted an all-star cast (including Peter Fonda, in his final screen performance) for “The Last Full Measure.” No amount of marquee talent, however, can fully compensate for the inert melodrama peddled by this inspired-by-true-events film, which recounts the 1999 campaign to see Pitsenbarger properly feted.
“The Last Full Measure” concerns ambitious Dept. of Defense staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), who bristles at what he believes is a thankless assignment: reviewing a petition to get Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine) the Medal of Honor for his valor on April 11, 1966, when — during a catastrophically bloody clash with Vietcong forces — he descended into the maelstrom to help patch up, and support, the “Big Red One” army battalion fighting to stay alive on the ground. Pitsenbarger didn’t survive this mission, and for the past 30-plus years, retired Air Force Sgt. Tom Tulley (William Hurt) — who was by Pitsenbarger’s side that day — and Pitsenbarger’s father Frank (Christopher Plummer) and mother Alice (Diane Ladd) have worked tirelessly to see that he receive his proper due.
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Huffman is instructed by his self-interested boss Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford) to do the bare minimum and then dump the job on their incoming replacements (Pentagon turnover is inevitable thanks to a change in administrations). Yet the more he meets with Army vets rescued by Pitsenbarger, the more Huffman understands their wartime grief, survivor’s guilt, and trauma — and, by extension, the borderline-miraculous gallantry of Pitsenbarger. In encounters with gruff Billy Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), PTSD-afflicted Jimmy Burr (Fonda), ashamed Ray Mott (Ed Harris), and Kurtzian Vietnam resident Chauncy Kepper (John Savage), Huffman learns to appreciate military camaraderie and sacrifice, and in doing so, becomes possessed with a desire to right this historical wrong — no matter that his crusade might have disastrous consequences for his own career.
In relatively brief turns, “The Last Full Measure’s” illustrious actors (also joined by Amy Madigan and Linus Roache) treat their characters’ tormented plights with heartfelt solemnity. Unfortunately, director Robinson rarely misses an opportunity to tug insistently on viewers’ heartstrings. That’s mainly done via Philip Klein’s score, which drowns every other moment in excessive sentimentality, although the filmmaker’s fondness for momentous slow-motion — often to catch soldiers sharing meaningful glances in battle — is also to blame. At least the frequent, washed-out flashbacks to Pitsenbarger’s Vietnam exploits convey the chaotic hell of war, all while contextualizing Jackson, Fonda, Harris, and Hurt’s’ ongoing anguish over their compatriot’s demise, and their own combat failings.
A few subtle comments lend “The Last Full Measure” a spiritual element, casting Huffman’s toil on behalf of honor and justice as a righteous undertaking. Such notions, however, prove secondary to the film’s basic goal of celebrating a serviceman whose selfless bravery touched the lives of countless individuals. That limited objective may keep Robinson’s drama from having much in the way of nuance or surprise, or any larger interest in critiquing the justness of the Vietnam War itself. But it nonetheless also results in a reverential — and occasionally poignant — tribute to a legitimate hero.