If you’re going to put Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer and Peter Fonda in one movie together, you’re really going to have to mess up to get me to not recommend it.
And though Todd Robinson’s screenplay for “The Last Full Measure” doesn’t always measure up to the talent, the movie gives each of these great actors time to shine. More importantly, Robinson (who also directed) has his heart in the right place, making a sincere and moving tribute to veterans and their families.
The movie is inspired by the true story of Airman William H. “Pits” Pitsenbarger, an Air Force Pararescueman who served in Vietnam, flying into war zones and airlifting out the wounded. During a particularly vicious battle in 1966 known as Operation Abilene, Pitsenbarger (played in flashbacks by Jeremy Irvine) stayed on the ground to help a group of soldiers pinned down in an ambush. He refused to leave with his helicopter, and was later killed by sniper fire.
The film is set 32 years later, following a callow, ambitious Defense Department staffer named Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) who gets assigned the task of reviewing Pitsenbarger’s case and seeing if he deserves to be awarded a belated, posthumous Medal of Honor. It’s a dead-end assignment, and Huffman initially resents being badgered by Pitsenbarger’s comrade (Hurt) into launching the investigation. The odds of success are long. Of the nearly 3,500 Medals of Honor issued, only a handful have gone to those who served in the Air Force, and only three to Air Force enlisted men like Pitsenbarger.
But as Huffman visits Hurt and some of the soldiers whose lives Pitsenbarger saved (played by Harris, Jackson and Fonda, for whom this was his final film role) and hears their stories, he understands a little better what they went through. He also visits with Pitsenbarger’s parents, played by Plummer and Diane Lane in understated, poignant performances.
“The Last Full Measure” is structured very smartly, giving each of these fine actors center stage for a scene or two to really connect with the viewer. At this stage of their careers, veteran actors like Jackson, Hurt or Harris usually get cast as cigar-chomping generals or some other “boss” role in action movies, allowed to show only one facet onscreen. Robinson gives them a rare chance to show vulnerability and tenderness, as these crusty old men crumble under the weight of their wartime memories. It’s very moving to watch.
Every now and then, there’s a clunker of a line (“He’s as tough as a two-dollar steak”) that breaks the spell, but the actors are strong enough to overcome it. An attempt to add a “thriller” subplot, as Huffman uncovers evidence of some sort of conspiracy to cover up the disastrous Operation Abilene, feels strained and unnecessary.
“The Last Full Measure” should be seen by veterans of all wars and their families, not just because it’s a tribute to their service, but because it articulates feelings that they may share but don’t see expressed enough in movies. But it should really be seen by those of us who aren’t in military families, as a reminder of what those who serve in our name, and those they leave behind, endure.