clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘The Last Full Measure’: Flashbacks reveal an airman’s heroics in powerful Vietnam story

There’s hardly a moment that doesn’t feature at least one great actor —  William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd — in top form.

His fellow airmen recall the heroics of William Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine) during an ill-fated Vietnam mission in “The Last Full Measure.”
Roadside Attractions

Their son has been gone, lost to war, for some 32 years, but his parents have kept his bedroom intact, complete with pennants and baseball trophies and other tokens of a teenager’s world, as their boy was just 18 when he joined the Air Force.

“I miss the way he tapped his cleats when he went up to bat,” says the young man’s father, who is now quite old and very ill and near the end of his time.

“[I miss] the way he always found me in the stands when he crossed home plate. … I never got to see him marry or fall in love with a child of his own. Because only then could he understand how much his father loved him.”

This is one of at least a half-dozen beautifully and heartbreakingly rendered moments in writer-director Todd Robinson’s “The Last Full Measure,” a moving and powerful and unforgettable story about the Vietnam War and its aftershocks, in the tradition of “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home.”

Christopher Plummer plays the father of a U.S. Air Force hero in that bedroom scene. Diane Ladd is the soldier’s mother. They are part of an outstanding ensemble cast of veteran stars that includes William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Amy Madigan, John Savage (some 42 years after “The Deer Hunter”) and the late Peter Fonda in his final live-action movie role.

There’s hardly a moment in this film that doesn’t feature at least one great actor in top form.

“The Last Full Measure” kicks off with the obligatory (and yet still pitch-perfect) French horn-led score as we see a montage of newspaper headlines and grainy film footage providing snippets of information about Operation Abilene, an ill-fated U.S. mission in the Phuoc Tuy Province in the spring of 1966 that resulted in 36 Americans killed and 71 wounded.

Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd play the parents of a Vietnam War hero in “The Last Full Measure.”
Roadside Attractions

Flash forward to 1998, where we meet the ambitious, talented and just a little bit slick Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), a Pentagon staffer on a career fast track.

Scott is more than a little annoyed when his mentor at the Pentagon (Bradley Whitford) assigns him to look into a Medal of Honor review case involving one William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine in flashbacks), a U.S. Air Force Pararescueman who was credited with saving a number of lives before he was KIA during Operation Abilene.

William Hurt is magnificently effective as Pitsenbarger’s best friend and his partner on the mission, Master Sgt. Thomas Tulley, who has been nearly crippled by the guilt he’s felt for staying in the helicopter while “Pits” waved him off and kept tending to the wounded, grabbing guns from the dead and fighting off the enemy.

Asked his agenda in working so hard for the medal review, Tulley says, “Justice delayed is justice denied. That’s my damn agenda.”

Cynical and determined to go through the motions of the medal review so he can return to the inner sanctum of the Dept. of Defense and interview for a prestigious position that’s his for the taking, Scott hits the road to interview a few of the Army veterans who witnessed Pits’ acts of valor and in some cases wouldn’t have made it home without him.

Cue the scenes of Scott in his suit and his veneer of distance coming face to face with men more than twice his age who could still crush him like a grape.

Samuel L. Jackson’s Takoda is an outwardly calm family man who loves to fish with his grandchildren — but is still filled with a sense of awe and also uneasiness when he remembers the battle.

“[Pits] died fighting alongside men he never knew,” Takoda tells Scott.

Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson, left) is one of the veterans interviewed by a Pentagon staffer (Sebastian Stan) about Pitsenbarger’s acts of valor.
Roadside Attractions

Ed Harris is a school bus driver who tells Scott the mission was a disaster from the start. Peter Fonda’s Jimmy is suffering from severe PTSD and his wife (Amy Madigan) is fiercely protective of him — but she allows Scott to talk to Jimmy about the events of 32 years ago.

Scott’s travels even take him to Vietnam, where he connects with John Savage’s Kepper, a veteran who never left Southeast Asia and has become a kind of hippie-healer version of Col. Kurtz — welcoming fellow American vets who have made a return trip in search of some measure of closure.

As you might have guessed, it’s not long before Scott starts giving this medal review the respect and care and dedication it deserves. He makes it HIS mission to find out why the Medal of Honor was denied Pits all those years ago, and what the military was trying to cover up.

Writer-director Robinson expertly toggles back and forth between the harrowing, frantic, brutally intense 1966 battle scenes and the poignant procedural drama of the late 1990s.

Jeremy Irvine does a fine job as Pits in the flashback sequences, but we really learn the measure of the man through the memories of his parents and Scott’s interactions with those men whose lives he forever touched with his heroics.

Samuel L. Jackson is one of the most entertaining larger-than-life actors of our time, but his understated and measured performance here ranks with the best work he’s ever done. William Hurt can take something like a simple, 30-second phone conversation and turn it a master class. Peter Fonda closes out his career on a very strong note.

This is the first must-see movie of 2020.