Named in reference to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, writer/director Todd Robinson’s long time coming The Last Full Measure is a film and story that will mean so much to many American viewers. Not to say that it’s appeal is just limited to that one market (far from it) but with the horrors of the war in Vietnam slowly becoming a violent entry in the history books, it is fantastic to see a film that treats the conflict with such sensitivity. Vietnam has inspired many a film, even pictures not directly based on the war itself, and often a certain approach is taken but in Robinson’s film, things are less about the battle that fractured minds and destroyed lives and more about the people and how survival can be a sentence.
Highlighting the story of U.S. Air Force Pararescueman William H. Pitsenbarger (played here by Jeremy Irvine), The Last Full Measure shows how, in 1999, the efforts of those veterans who knew him inspired fast rising Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) to pay closer attention to his assignment of investigating a posthumous Medal of Honor request for Pitsenbarger. What follows is a story of determination, valour and ensuring the voices of the past remain loud and clear for the betterment of the future.
Split in-between Huffman’s initially exasperated investigations and the events of the gruesome and hopeless conflict of Battle of Xa Cam My in 1966, Robinson’s film is part story of selfless morality and part politically-charged investigative drama. The latter part takes predence in some sense and it does mean that some aspects of the subject are not covered in detail but this is a tale that is in the utmost respect of what happened in this war (as well as in war itself), with prime focus on why lives matter and how dirty politics can cost families in so many ways, families who have lost so much already.
As the film progresses, Huffman begins to see past his own world and into the heart of this story, thanks to the afflicted voices of those who survived and/or were saved by the actions of Pitsenbarger, who entered the fray of one of Vietnam’s bloodiest battles to save lives and rescue men, at the knowing cost of his own life. In these interviews, Huffman’s change of character is gratifying and meaningful and shows why the stories of previous generations and their experiences are vital to the future. Through these characters, we see themes of how doing the right thing can be the hardest thing, as can surviving with the memories and mistakes of your past.
Thanks to some beautiful casting all round, this film is full of fantastic performances from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Diane Ladd, Ed Harris and the late Peter Fonda (in his final film role), who each get the time to create a heart swelling scene of their own and in turn a powerful memory in this ensemble effort. While Stan leads the film well as Huffman, whose learning and experience ultimately becomes a life changing experience for this dedicated family man.
Admittedly the film does not always manage to do justice to the conflict and the level of conspiracy surrounding this medal request and the war itself in 50/50 equal measure. However, never at any point does the film feel to get caught up in the action/excitement of war and it always comes back around to the trauma, the pain, the torture and the regret of not only fighting it but living to tell the tale. Around this inspiring story, Robinson tells another, one where a young man’s moving life-saving sacrifice inspired – over 3 decades on – a group of struggling veterans to rally and another young man to fight for what is right instead of playing a shallow political game.