“Justice delayed is justice denied.”
On April 11, 1966, 21-year-old William H. Pitsenbarger descended from his helicopter onto the war-torn soil of Vietnam and into Operation Abilene. The United States Air Force pararescueman lifted wounded soldiers one by one into the helicopter until he was killed in battle. The soldiers and pararescuemen who witnessed William’s sacrifice nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but his award was instead downgraded to the Air Force Cross. That is, until the year 2000, when his award was reviewed and upgraded. William’s parents accepted his Medal of Honor on Dec. 8, nearly 35 years after his passing.
Director Todd Robinson’s “The Last Full Measure” is inspired by the true events that led to William’s medal upgrade. Sporting an all-star cast, the film follows fictional Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) on his not-so-fictional quest for justice. Stan plays the ambitious and at times arrogant Department of Defense employee who is approached in 1999 by William’s friend Tully (William Hurt) looking to upgrade William’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor. Initially, Scott couldn’t be bothered to take Tully’s inquiry seriously — medal upgrades were seemingly impossible, and given William had died over 30 years ago in the Vietnam War, the cynical Scott was convinced Tully had some ulterior motive. But what begins as Scott’s haphazard attempt at gathering information turns into an experience that unearths William’s true heroism.
Scott visits with veterans Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), Burr (Peter Fonda) and Mott (Ed Harris), all of whom were soldiers saved by William in Operation Abilene. Their testimonies are complimented with scenes showing William (Jeremy Irvine) selflessly rescuing “men he didn’t even know,” as Takoda puts it, in Vietnam. It is these stories, along with a growing relationship with William’s parents (Christopher Plummer as Frank and Diane Ladd as Alice), that soften Scott’s heart and turn his indifference for the task to a determination to recognize William’s sacrifice.
William’s story in the film is not magnificently told. Like many war movies, “The Last Full Measure” seems overly patriotic and sentimental at times, with repetitive dialogue in the testimonies that echo the same message: William was brave and honorable, sacrificing himself for men he didn’t even know, determined to save lives because it was the right thing to do. Scott wrestles with the magnitude of William’s morality, constantly questioning how someone could be so heroic and constantly receiving the same rehearsed answer.
Despite this, the film is still powerful and evocative, with top-notch acting and an inspiring true story balancing out the movie’s weaknesses. Stan is outstanding in his transformation from skeptic to supporter, making a character who never existed appear to fit perfectly into the lives of these very real people. Harris characterizes the suffering of a soldier paralyzed by remorse and still struggling to come to terms with the fact that he’s alive and William isn’t. Jackson’s portrayal of a solider who was initially excited about war but whose spirit was broken by it captures an earnest yet sorrowful picture of defeat. Hurt’s breakdown near the end of the movie is gut-wrenching, his character grappling with his guilt and shame. Fonda is masterful in his final performance, conveying the damage war rages on a person’s psyche in mere minutes of screen time.
Hands-down, my favorite performance in this film comes from Plummer’s portrayal of William’s father. In every scene, Plummer exudes a duality of the emotions that have defined the Pitsenbargers’ lives: pride and pain, a sense of fondness and admiration as he reflects on his son’s memory coupled with the visceral anguish of losing something so precious. As a father dying of cancer, he’s holding on for dear life to see his son earn the justice he deserves, and Plummer’s performance is so compelling that I found myself rooting for Frank. Ladd’s portrayal of Alice Pitsenbarger should not go without merit, either, and the look on the pair’s faces as they finally held their son’s medal made for one of the most powerful and painful scenes in the movie.
And the movie’s attempt at being over-emotional actually did make me emotional. Several scenes started to bring tears to my eyes, though I’m not sure whether the movie itself is what moved me, or if it was the fact that William’s story is a real one. Regardless, it was enough to move myself and other viewers, as I heard tearful sniffles throughout the theater. Even throughout this outright display of patriotic heroism, the movie was careful not to cross the line of glorifying war itself.
Though the sentiment was forced, dialogue was all to rehearsed and the message redundant, these things only partially undermined the integrity of the movie. Cast performances that were both harrowing and inspirational, coupled with the weight of William Pitsenbarger’s sacrifice, help this film to measure up to it’s potential, even though it may not have been fully reached.
Final Rating: 3.7/5
Featured Illustration: Jae-Eun Suh