William H. Pitsenbarger was a military legend but unless you’re an American war aficionado, you may not have heard of him. During the Vietnam War, “Pits” was an Air Force Pararescueman who participated in almost 300 rescue missions, rappelling down into firefights in order to aid wounded soldiers. During one particularly brutal enemy assault, the chopper Pits flew in on had to vacate after being hit with fire but he decided to stay behind, spending hours helping wounded soldiers. He was eventually killed by enemy fire that day, but the soldiers who survived credit it all to his bravery.
With all the war movies that the good ol’ US of A has produced over the years, it’s taken until now for Pitsenbarger to get the big screen treatment. Instead of telling a traditional biopic about his life however, The Last Full Measure, takes a different approach, focusing on the turn of the century battle to posthumously award Pits with the Medal of Honor, which he was bizarrely denied in the initial aftermath of Vietnam.
Consequently, the lead character of the film is a fictional one – hotshot Department of Defense lawyer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), who is reluctantly assigned to the MOH request case when he’d rather devote his energy to his rising political aspirations. This makes him the perfect cinematic candidate to gradually discover the true meaning of bravery and selflessness as he flies around the country to gather the stories of the soldiers who witnessed Pitsenbarger’s sacrifice firsthand, played by a roundtable of esteemed actors like William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris and, in his final screen role, Peter Fonda.
By taking this narrative approach, writer-director Todd Robinson (who has speculatively explored true stories with his last two films, 2006’s Lonely Hearts and 2013’s Phantom, as well) tries to create drama out of thin air. Since we know Pitsenbarger will eventually receive his Medal and there isn’t really any factual reason available as to why he didn’t get it in the first place beyond an unfortunate clerical oversight, The Last Full Measure ends up spinning its wheels for two hours, throwing in some vague fictional conspiracies about political posturing as an explanation. Meanwhile, Pitsenbarger himself is relegated to the background of his own movie, played by Jeremy Irvine in a series of flashbacks that just show us the same low-budget war action over and over again. And even in these scenes, Pits is given no personality at all, instead appearing out of the sky and tending to wounded soldiers as an almost literal angel, lit with halo and all.
I’m sure Robinson’s heart is in the right place but his approach inadvertently cheapens Pitsenbarger’s story. His direction is also pedestrian at best, resulting in something that feels like a TV movie despite the prestige talent involved. At least he mostly avoids jingoistic pro-war posturing, as someone like Clint Eastwood may have leaned into, and the cast does their best to keep us engaged. But in the end, this is a pretty airless affair.
Pits is clearly a beloved American war hero, as we hear in touching interviews with real soldiers during the end credits. It’s too bad he couldn’t get a tribute film that would linger in viewers minds as long as his memory has.
- Rated: R
- Genre: Drama, War
- Release Date: 1/24/2020
- Directed by: Todd Robinson
- Starring: Amy Madigan, Bradley Whitford, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, Ed Harris, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Peter Fonda, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, William Hurt
- Written by: Todd Robinson
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