Score: 3 stars (***) out of 4 stars
For war movie fans, they’re lucky if they get one really good offering a year, yet there have now been three exceptional productions released in just as many months.
On Veteran’s Day, we had “Midway,” Christmas Day gave us “1917,” and opening Friday is “The Last Full Measure.”
All have some basis in various levels of fact and each reflects what film industry folk refer to as “artistic liberty” and/or “revisionist history.” More on that in a bit.
Known to only the most learned of Vietnam historians and scholars, the April 1966 “Battle of Xa Cam My” was the worst day of the war for American Forces.
During “Operation Abilene,” 80% of the 134 U.S. soldiers present were either killed or wounded, a number which would have certainly been higher if not for the heroic efforts of Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine). A medic with the 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, Pitsenbarger dropped down from a helicopter, tended to upwards of 60 soldiers and then joined in the battle for which he was later awarded the Air Force Cross.
The movie opens in 1999 with civilian Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) being assigned the case to look into a request to award Pitsenbarger the Medal of Honor.
The point man for the inquiry is Tully (William Hurt), a member of Pitsenbarger’s team who also piloted the helicopter on that fateful day. The meeting is perfunctory but cordial and Huffman informs Tully he’ll conduct interviews with the family and other surviving soldiers but tempers it by advising him not to get his hopes up too high. Award upgrades are rare and given the length of the passing years in this case, even more unlikely.
Keeping his word, Huffman meets with Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), Burr (Peter Fonda in his last role), Mott (Ed Harris), Pitsenbarger’s parents (Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd) and later Kepper (John Savage), a combatant who stayed behind and still lives near the village where the battle took place.
From the start through about the 40-minute mark, writer/director Todd Robinson does little to distinguish “The Last Full Measure” from dozens of other similar B-grade or direct-to-video “war story” titles.
The regular back-and-forth flashbacks between 1999 and 1966 don’t help Robinson’s cause and some viewers might see this as a way to distract them and keep attention away from a perceived weak screenplay. It is during Huffman’s second interview with Takoda that the narrative starts taking real narrative chances, gathers noticeable bite, finally finds its desired groove, and hits a full gallop pace.
In what seems like mere seconds, Robinson transforms the movie from a rote procedural drama into a full-fledged mystery thriller where each subsequent scene adds something different and unexpected to the mix. As the veteran survivors — understandably leery and suspicious at first — begin to become more at ease, open and trusting with Huffman, leading to a wider narrative depth and a greater scope of the bigger picture. It is during the second half of the film where the “survivor’s guilt” syndrome also becomes as important, if not more than the facts. For actual Vietnam veterans, this bit of third-person cinematic purging could prove to be overwhelming but also refreshingly freeing and ultimately cathartic.
Of all U.S. wars — including those still being waged — none have had its soldiers discounted or taken for granted in real life or in the movies more so than those who served in Vietnam. In recent years, these atrocious and disrespectful slightings have been somewhat addressed and semi-corrected but no amount of backpedaling and overdue acknowledgment can ever fully remedy the base treatment these honorable Americans suffered when returning home from other (largely short-sighted) Americans.
Robinson and the studio were shrewd when they cast Hurt, Jackson, Fonda, Harris, Plummer, Ladd, Savage, Dale Dye, Amy Madigan, and Bradley Whitford as Huffman’s slimy, snake-of-a-boss in key supporting roles. While none are true A-listers, each has enough of a following on their own to bring in audiences who might otherwise avoid war flicks and credit to them for participating in this production.
Now comes the rub.
In the interest of full disclosure, the three people with the last name Pitsenbarger and Linus Roache as former U.S. Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters are the only non-fictional characters with major speaking roles in the film. This is not a bad thing per se in the great scheme of things. It is not uncommon for filmmakers to mix real and fictional characters in fact-based stories (poetic license) and it is entirely forgivable if the basic truths are not altered, made-up, or fudged. By all accounts the portrayal of Pitsenbarger and his parents is entirely true and having the other characters acting as “composites” is not in any way an attempt to rewrite history but rather as an enhancement for dramatic effect — nothing more.
“The Last Full Measure” takes its title from a line in a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln to the mother of multiple perished sons lost in the Civil War, later made famous in a scene from “Saving Private Ryan” — a fitting homage. This is not revisionist history. It is the true story of a brave American soldier who gave the ultimate sacrifice and was finally acknowledged by his country for his efforts. Period.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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