In the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln paid tribute to those who fought and died for their cause, to which they “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Lincoln’s description of the ultimate sacrifice provides the title for Todd Robinson’s “The Last Full Measure,” which depicts the long quest to award Air Force pararescue medic William H. Pitsenbarger the Medal of Honor 34 years after he died in the Vietnam War.
The Medal of Honor, the military’s highest distinction, has been awarded to just over 3,500 service members for extraordinary acts of valor in combat since the Civil War. “The Last Full Measure” is about the significance of the decoration, but as the story unfolds, it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination.
It’s so important to his surviving Air Force buddies and the Army soldiers he rescued that Pitsenbarger receive this Medal of Honor, an upgrade from the Air Force Cross he initially received, that they spend three decades in pursuit of the distinction. By 1999, they eventually get the file on the desk of D.C. bureaucrat Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), who is saddled with pushing through the request before Pitsenbarger’s dying father (Christopher Plummer) dies. What at first seems like an onerous task to the ambitious (and a bit snarky) Scott soon becomes a cathartic emotional exploration and bonding experience for the veterans who remain prisoners to their own painful memories of war.
The process of assembling the Medal of Honor file becomes a way to cleanse emotional wounds, as Scott bears witness to the men reckoning with their past. At the behest of Tulley (William Hurt), Scott interviews Army vets Billy (Samuel L. Jackson), Jimmie (the late Peter Fonda), Ray (Ed Harris) and Kepper (John Savage), whom Pistenbarger helped to save during the bloody Operation Abilene.
In a series of messy and chaotic flashbacks, untethered from any specific person or memory, the story of Pistenbarger’s heroism unfolds. Sent to rescue a battalion of men pinned down in the jungle by the Viet Cong, the 21-year-old Air Force medic lowered himself to the ground to treat the wounded and fight off the enemy, waving away the helicopter as it tried to pick him up, fighting alongside soldiers he didn’t know before that night.
It’s a shame the flashbacks are so harried, as the gravity of Pitsenbarger’s actions could have landed more fully with the audience. It’s also sidetracked by an underdeveloped storyline about the misguided nature of Operation Abilene. But fundamentally, “The Last Full Measure” is about the healing process for the veterans and Pitsenbarger’s parents as they pursue recognition for their friend, son and hero. Although the script and aesthetic are melodramatic and often sentimental, the star-studded cast elevates the material with nuanced performances.
Though Pitsenbarger’s heroism and personal sacrifice was immense, what the film truly reveals is the deep shame and trauma vets contend with as survivors who did their best under extreme violence and duress and have to live with those choices. What “The Last Full Measure” demonstrates is how powerful it can be to shed light on these experiences, through testimony, bearing witness and yes, ceremonial recognition.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 24, in general release