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Review: The Last Full Measure (2020)

The Last Full Measure (2020)

Directed by: Todd Robinson

Premise: Based on a true story. During the Vietnam War, U.S. Air Force Pararescueman William H. Pitsenbarger saved dozens of American soldiers. Three decades later, a Pentagon staffer works with veterans to petition for Pitsenbarger to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor.

What Works: Hollywood has historically been one of the United States’ military’s biggest and most effective supporters. From The Story of G.I. Joe to Top Gun to Saving Private Ryan to American Sniper, Hollywood has specialized in mythologizing and valorizing the sacrifices of United States’ servicemen. The Last Full Measure is fully embedded in that tradition and it is a somber and respectful tale of honoring heroism. The story unfolds from the point of view of Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), a civilian Pentagon staffer who is assigned to investigate the Medal of Honor application for Air Force Pararescueman William H. Pitsenbarger who was killed in combat in Vietnam. Huffman begins the story as a cynical careerist but as he interviews Pitsenbarger’s family and fellow soldiers Huffman learns who this man was and why it is so important that he be honored. The filmmakers of The Last Full Measure do that aspect of this tale well. Huffman’s transformation is credible because the movie conveys what Pitsenbarger’s bravery and sacrifice meant to the people he saved. The middle of the movie consists of a series of interviews and the film has some terrific supporting performances by William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and the late Peter Fonda. Each character is distinct and adds a new layer to the story. The crosscutting between past and present is done effectively and, combined with the testimonies of the veterans, makes the past vivid and a part of the present. As the Pentagon official pieces together Pitsenbarger’s story, there are enough twists and revelations to keep the movie interesting and Huffman is required to take risks in order to complete his mission.

What Doesn’t: The Last Full Measure is frequently generic. The music by Philip Klein is a stock Hollywood military score and it lays on the pathos pretty thick. This is also a contemporary film; it was shot digitally and the combat scenes are a little too clean and lack the grit we associate with media from the Vietnam era. There are a few scenes that are redundant and overplay the themes; the filmmakers hammer away at the same ideas. The Last Full Measure is also generic in the way it sidesteps any questions about the Vietnam War itself. The moral or political implications of America’s involvement are never questioned. At one point, Pitsenbarger’s bereaved mother iterates the “we fought them there so we don’t have to fight them here” argument to explain her son’s sacrifice. That argument has no place in a discussion about Vietnam and its presence here is typical of the superficiality with which Hollywood has often dealt with warfare.

DVD extras: Featurettes and a trailer.

Bottom Line: The Last Full Measure is an acceptable military drama. The movie is reverent to a fault and is sometimes generic but it has a few standout performances and the filmmakers accomplish what they’ve set out to do.