'The Last Full Measure': Film Review

Doesn't measure up.

Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris and Samuel L. Jackson co-star in a drama about the effort to award a soldier military honors decades after his death.

It’s a good thing The Last Full Measure isn’t going to be winning the Oscar for best picture next year, because there are so many producers and executive producers credited (27, count 'em — 27) they might not all fit on the same stage. But there’s no danger of that, as this Vietnam War-themed drama is one of the dullest movies made about that oft-dramatized conflict, a solemn effort at consecrating the true-life bravery of a young American soldier who sacrificed himself while saving the lives of upwards of 60 men caught like rats in a trap.

This early-in-the-year release, which was shot in 2017, should fare better on home screens, where older viewers unlikely to track it down in theaters can soak in its sincere and patriotic bromides.

Whatever else might be said about them, Vietnam War-based films are not normally dull. But writer-director Todd Robinson, whose script for Ridley Scott’s 1996 boating drama White Squall remains his best-known credit, has managed to turn this tribute to a verifiable hero into a plodding, somnolent snooze. Every impulse behind the pic seems engineered to embalm the memory of a young man whose selfless efforts were expended under terrible duress, the kind of extreme circumstances that films can better capture than any other form of media.

Uncommonly good-looking Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) is approached, in 1999, to see what can be done to, at long last, have the late Big Red One pararescueman William H. Pitsenbarger bestowed with the Medal of Honor for his life-saving efforts on a jungle battleground on April 11, 1966; his heroic and selfless acts are estimated to have saved at least 60 American lives that day. It’s an effort instigated by the late soldier’s father (Christopher Plummer) and mother (Diane Ladd), as well as by an army cohort, Tulley (William Hurt). 

Huffman’s initial efforts to line up support involve tracking down some of the man’s fellow grunts, who include Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s never been the same since the incident, and old souls played by Ed Harris, John Savage and, in his final role, Peter Fonda. The latter two actors in particular possess cinematic associations with Vietnam and the counterculture that trigger welcome reverberations in this context but, of the supporting players, Bradley Whitford does the most to enliven things when he’s on.

Built like an onion in order to be peeled back, layer by layer, so as to methodically reveal the events of the fateful day in all its pain and horror, the film doesn’t take a clear-cut political stance except for a blandly generalized patriotism. More than anything, it seems to want to honor the bravery and experiences of the men who served, while also noting the uselessness of it all and, even moreso, the permanent damage it did to those who came home to find that both they and the country had changed, in ways that served neither well. 

Still, this is hardly news, and it can’t be said that The Last Full Measure has anything particularly insightful, interesting or fresh to add to a subgenre filled with far more striking and provocative works. The pic tries to make hay with the revelation of why Pitsenbarger was denied any honors by the government for so many decades, for reasons which in the end seem mean-spirited, childish and unwarranted. If it succeeds in one respect, it’s in honoring not just those who made the ultimate sacrifice that ill-begotten day, but in spotlighting how the men who survived the incident really never recovered and were destined to be haunted by events that lasted just a few hours for the rest of their lives.

Robinson habitually stresses the obvious in his storytelling, and the director never fully delineates how and why the military disaster on that April day unfolded as it did. The way the fighting is staged clarifies this not at all, nor do the men discuss it in any helpful manner. The ending suggests that he’s far more interested in pulling silly heartstrings than in really trying to get to the bottom of things.

Production companies: BLC Finance Group, Boss Collaboration, Foresight Unlimited, Provocator, SSS Entertainment
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Dale Dye, Peter Fonda, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Jeremy Irvine, Diane Ladd, Amy Madigan, Linus Roach, John Savage, Alison Sudol, Bradley Whitford
Director-screenwriter: Todd Robinson
Producers: Timothy Scott Bogart, Mark Damon, Robert Reed Peterson, Nicholas Cafritz, Shaun Sanghani, TJ Steyn, Louis Steyn, Lauren Selig, Julian Adams, Sidney Sherman, Petr Jakl, Jordi Rediuy, Adi Cohen, Michael Bassick, John Watson, Pen Densham
Executive producers: Martin Barab, Bianca Kyun, Wilson Da Silva, Jessica Martins, Cesare Fazari, George Parra, Patrick Parkey, Tamara Birkemoe, Peter Winther, Habib Parucha, Jenna Sanz-Agero
Director of photography: Byron Werner
Production designer: Jonathan A. Carlson
Costume designer: Peggy Stamper
Editors: Richard Nord, Claudia Castello, Terel Gibson
Music: Philip Klein
Casting: Iris Hampton

Rated R, 117 minutes