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Anyone who calls themselves a regular movie-goer knows that the month of January is not a great time to be a film fan. Sure, there are some high profile titles that expand into wide release following Oscar-qualifying limited debuts in the final days of December, and the occasional surprise bit of quality, but mostly it serves as a cinematic dumping ground. It’s the time of year when studios put out features that they either have no faith in (critically and/or financially), or they just don’t have any idea what to do with.
In this context, writer/director Todd Robinson’s The Last Full Measure, arriving in theaters on January 24th, is befuddling. Featuring a fantastic ensemble of veteran stars, and centering on an emotional and powerful true war story, this is a movie that would be totally at home coming out in either October or November, and the fact that it’s coming out in the first month of the year is a head-scratcher. It’s a welcomed change of pace given what we’ve seen so far in 2020, and a good way to spend two hours in a theater, but also a bit strange.
The story begins in September 1999 when government lawyer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) is given what seems to be a thankless assignment. A persistent Vietnam War veteran named Tom Tulley (William Hurt) convinces his superior to open an investigation into the service of William Hart Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine), an Air Force Pararescueman who died heroically in action, but was denied the Medal of Honor – America’s highest personal military decoration – and received the Air Force Cross instead.
In order to get the full picture of the events surrounding Pitsenbarger’s service and death, Huffman is advised to reach out to the members of the 1st Infantry Division a.k.a. Big Red One whom his actions saved. Sitting down with multiple veterans (Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Ed Harris, John Savage), the lawyer starts to understand the events that occurred at Operation Abilene and how the subject of his investigation went above and beyond his call of duty, all while trying to work fast enough so that Pitsenbarger’s cancer-stricken father (Christopher Plummer) can see his son get the recognition he deserves before passing away.
The Last Full Measure has a strong structure that creates a compelling narrative.
For The Last Full Measure, Todd Robinson makes smart use of the flashback structure, aided by the fact that this is a story that most movie-goers are not going to be intimately aware of going in, and effectively escalates the plot by not only uncovering what happened to William Pitsenbarger, but understanding why it was that the initial request for him to get the Medal of Honor was denied. All the while the audience is fully engaged with all of the performers demonstrating the lasting damage of the conflict in Vietnam.
From Sebastian Stan to Samuel L. Jackson, the film has a stacked cast that it utilizes well.
Above I name-dropped eight excellent actors, not finding space to also mention the presence of Bradley Whitford, Diane Ladd, Amy Madigan, and Alison Sudol, and that’s a lot of people to squeeze into a 110 minute runtime. However, The Last Full Measure utilizes its impressive ensemble well, and never feels overloaded. Nobody feels expendable, each contributing a piece to the larger story – but more importantly, everyone delivers impressive work.
Sebastian Stan proves to be a strong lead, as we watch Huffman’s view on the work significantly change over the course of his investigation. For their parts, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Ed Harris, John Savage and William Hurt all carry a particular pain that comes as a result of William Pitsenbarger not getting the recognition that he deeply deserves, and it’s powerful to watch their conversations with Huffman evoke that pain.
There is variety in how each of them carry the weight – be it Fonda’s Jimmy Burr sleeping during the day because he fears the night, or Jackson’s Takoda wondering what Pitsenbarger’s life been like had he lived instead of him – and it all contributes to the larger whole.
The Last Full Measure misses an opportunity with its flashbacks, but is still effective.
The only substantial flaw with The Last Full Measure’s massive cast is that it’s a bit one-sided when it comes to the two timelines. While Sebastian Stan’s character is interviewing the Vietnam veterans as older men, their younger counterparts during flashbacks aren’t provided much personality or even really individuality. It’s partially because of all of the chaos going on during combat, but it was hard at times to fully keep track of who was who.
The flashbacks would be much more powerful if they directly corresponded with a particular point of view instead of the broader third person perspective it typically takes, but in retrospect it’s an aspect of The Last Full Measure that simply could have been improved rather than being a real detraction.
The Vietnam War is hardly fresh ground to cover in cinema, and this isn’t exactly one of the all-time greats, however, it most certainly has a story that is compelling and worthy of broadcasting. It’s much better than the typical dreck playing on the big screen this time of year, and at the very least worth a look as an actors showcase.