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In Theaters: THE LAST FULL MEASURE (2020)

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THE LAST FULL MEASURE
(US - 2020)

Written and directed by Todd Robinson. Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Peter Fonda, LisaGay Hamilton, Jeremy Irvine, Diane Ladd, Amy Madigan, Linus Roache, John Savage, Alison Sudol, Bradley Whitford, Dale Dye, Ser'Darius Blain, Zachary Roerig, Cody Walker, James Jagger, Richard Cawthorne, Ethan Russell, Bruce MacVittie, Asher Miles Fallica, Travis Aaron Wade, Rachel Harker. (R, 116 mins)

An extremely earnest and well-meaning chronicle of the efforts to award a posthumous Medal of Honor to a fallen Vietnam War hero, THE LAST FULL MEASURE wears its heart on its sleeve and you can't fault the nobility of its intentions. Jumping between 1999 and flashbacks to the botched Operation Abilene in the ill-fated 1966 Battle of Xa Cam My on a rubber plantation roughly 30 klicks outside of Saigon, the film doesn't shy away from a deep dive into hagiography in the story of Air Force pararescueman William "Pits" Pitsenbarger (played here by Jeremy Irvine), a Piqua, OH native who was killed in action on April 11, 1966 while treating and rescuing 60 Army infantrymen, then refusing evacuation and staying behind to help the unit defend their position against VC snipers. Because it was an Army operation, the request for a Medal of Honor citation was denied and Pitsenbarger was instead awarded the Air Force Cross. But the men saved by Pitsenbarger, along with retired Air Force Sgt. and fellow pararescueman Tom Tulley (William Hurt) have never given up the fight for his heroism to be properly recognized. The MOH inquiry lands in the lap of ambitious (and, like almost everyone else here, fictional) mid-level Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), who has loftier goals than sifting through boring paperwork for info about a 33-year-old battle that nobody remembers, and he's practically encouraged by his smarmy boss Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford, cast radically against type as "Bradley Whitford") to blow it off and bide his time before pawning it off on someone else.







But Huffman proceeds with at least pretending to give a shit, his obvious ambivalence to the assignment earning the derisive scorn of Tulley as well as the Cam My survivors he tracks down to half-heartedly interview (their stories are intercut with combat flashbacks to that fateful day), all of them embittered and shattered from the horrors they experienced and witnessed: Jimmy Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson), Ray Mott (Ed Harris), and Jimmy Burr (the late Peter Fonda, in his last film), the latter with a bullet still lodged in his head and suffering from PTSD so intensely debilitating that he carries a loaded shotgun at all times and sleeps during the day because he remains terrified of the darkness of night. A pencil pusher and company man who seems to demonstrate no understanding of the sacrifice these men have made, Sanford inevitably comes around to seeing the light, feeling their pain, and legitimately caring about the legacy of Pitsenbarger, especially after he meets his elderly parents, Alice (Diane Ladd) and Frank Pitsenbarger (Christopher Plummer), who's terminally ill with cancer and wants nothing more than to see his son properly honored before he dies.


It's doubtful you'll find a film in 2020 with more honorable intent. This was a longtime passion project for writer/director Todd Robinson (who previously directed Harris in the instantly-forgotten, low-budget submarine thriller PHANTOM), who spent 20 years trying to get it made before production finally began in 2017 (Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate's art house division, has been sitting on this for a while). Pitsenbarger's story could've been told without resorting to melodramatic embellishment, like the invoking of an actual friendly fire incident during the two-day battle that the film uses to lend credence to a generally debunked conspiracy theory that Pitsenbarger was denied the Medal of Honor because of potential embarrassment it would inflict on the US Army, not to mention the presidential aspirations of a fictional senator (Dale Dye) who, in the context of the film, was one of the architects of Operation Abilene. The dramatic license taken with this plot tangent certainly necessitates nearly everyone--the exceptions being Pitsenbarger, his parents, and Linus Roache as Clinton-era Air Force Secretary Whit Peters--being composite characters or whole cloth fictional creations "inspired" by actual participants. The best parts of THE LAST FULL MEASURE are provided by a stacked cast of national treasures and one ageless living legend in the always-magnificent Plummer, who's just heartbreaking when Mr. Pitsenbarger looks out of his son's bedroom window, recalling when he was just a boy, and saying "Sometimes I can still see him out there mowing the lawn." Jackson, Harris, Hurt, and Fonda are all granted time in the spotlight to work their magic, their characters haunted by memories of war and the sacrifice Pitsenbarger made to save them. When these guys are onscreen, as opposed to the bland Stan's uninteresting Sanford, THE LAST FULL MEASURE is often gut-wrenchingly powerful. That's especially true for Jackson, who gets a great monologue about coming home from Vietnam only to have the locals call him a "baby-killer," and Fonda, who goes out with a marvelous farewell performance as a broken man who's been absolutely unable to psychologically function in any capacity since the day Pitsenbarger saved his life.


Peter Fonda (1940-2019)
There's enough real drama in this story that it shouldn't have been difficult to avoid the fictionalization and the unfortunate second half turn toward the maudlin and overwrought. That begins right around the time Sanford travels to Vietnam to find another Cam My survivor (THE DEER HUNTER's John Savage), who stayed behind and turned the battle site into a CGI butterfly-filled memorial of prayer and reflection in a ridiculously long sequence that looks like an outtake from an apparent John Savage self-help meditation video. It's not long after that when Hurt's otherwise solid performance is completely derailed by a ludicrously melodramatic, saliva-spewing survivor's guilt breakdown that has him slobbering all over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Characters start giving speeches as the inspirational music swells and tugs at the heartstrings, and no matter how sincere it's delivered, not a great actress like three-time Oscar-nominee Diane Ladd is capable of selling florid dialogue like "Talking about Bill is one of the greatest joys of our life...keeping him alive keeps us strong...it's how we balance our grief and live a happy life without him." And around the time Pitsenbarger gets his posthumous Medal of Honor and Whitford's loathsome prick character has his come-to-Jesus moment and is shown leading the ovation with a slow clap (are we still doing this, Hollywood?), you might ask yourself why Robinson is so determined to sabotage a generally credible movie with this kind of mawkish, pandering horseshit. For most of its duration, THE LAST FULL MEASURE is a terrific showcase for some great actors, and if you're a fan of Peter Fonda, you'll be hard-pressed to not get a little choked-up at his last scene (fittingly, the film is dedicated to him). In the end, even with the second-half stumbling and bumbling (it was nice to see Savage on the big screen again, but his whole section is a momentum-killer that should've been left on the cutting room floor), it's a suitably effective--and refreshingly non-jingoistic--man-weepie that dads and grandpas will love, and I can't help but wonder if it's in theaters now so the Blu-ray will make a great Father's Day gift in June.



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