All war movies are not necessarily created equal. Case in point: Todd Robinson’s The Last Full Measure, which follows 1917 into theaters this week as the latest example of one of the movies’ most durable genres.
The similarity between Sam Mendes’ World War I spectacle and Robinson’s rather dour Vietnam War coda ends there. Where 1917 has the sweep and visual power of a major achievement, Robinson’s comparatively modest true-story-based drama mostly devotes itself to sweeping up behind a war many Americans have either forgotten, or would like to put behind us. That’s unfair, the new film informs us, because Vietnam had its own unique stories that need telling. In this instance, the tale of the bravery and devotion of William “Pits” Pitsenbarger, a U.S. Air Force Pararescueman medic who lost his life in 1966 in a fierce firefight in the rural Cẩm Mỹ district of Ðõng Nai Province in Southeast Vietnam.
Writer-director Robinson frames Pits’ last adventure as a series of flashbacks inserted into the efforts – in 1999, a full 32 years after the fact — of a Pentagon staffer named Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), to upgrade the late airman’s posthumous award of the Air Force Cross. Some of Pits’ comrades in arms believe he actually deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor (the military’s highest award for valor in action), for sacrificing his life by refusing to be evacuated, in order to tend to wounded U.S. Army troops on the ground. Pits’ MOH, we find out, got sidetracked by political wrangling and never happened.
The framework hamstrings the story. In cross-cutting between the decisive battle and Huffman’s latter-day detective work interviewing the survivors, Robinson leaves off Pits’ back story – who he is, what made him that way, etc. Because we pick up Pits (played by Jeremy Irvine) at the moment his helicopter arrives above the firefight, we never get to see what really makes him tick, how he gets to the point of his heroism. And so we watch a character we don’t know very well performing heroically, but have to cut away from him at crucial moments to focus on what is essentially the education of a spoiled Defense Department bureaucrat.
As drawn by Robinson’s screenplay, Huffman is an ambitious careerist who doesn’t want to waste his time investigating an incident from a long-ago conflict he doesn’t care about. At the urging of his boss (Bradley Whitford), Huffman is expected to make the medal upgrade process “look like we give a shit.” But he learns valuable life lessons (natch) from talking to the Nam-vet grunts – an appropriately pissed-off, traumatized bunch portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, William Hurt, the late Peter Fonda, Ed Harris, and John Savage. Add to that impressive list of character actors Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd as the deceased airman’s parents and Amy Madigan as the Fonda character’s wife, and we’ve got a well-stocked competing narrative that detracts from the main plot’s essential question: Is Pits worthy of a Medal of Honor or not?
Robinson, a well-traveled writer-producer mostly in TV (he also made the 2006 neo-noir Lonely Hearts), depicts the battle of Cẩm Mỹ as a desperate struggle against overwhelming odds, with Irvine’s Pits furiously patching up wounded men in between fighting off the enemy and helping wounded soldiers play dead when the Viet Cong overrun their position. And yet we never get to know him as anything other than a symbol who drops into the action from above, a classic deus ex machina. The Last Full Measure shoots itself in the foot. It may deserve a Purple Heart for that, but nothing much more.