How I viewed the Vietnam War was shaped largely by the movies released when I was young. In rapid succession–and probably at too slight an age–I saw Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Hair, and Apocalypse Now, all films that drove home the futility and utter waste of that ill-begotten conflict. The anguish and anger in those films feel as real and raw today as they did decades ago.
The Last Full Measure, which is out this Friday, is not as resolutely political as those films were, but it does focus on the plight of American soldiers who were either not properly honored for their sacrifices in that war or returned home from Nam with enough emotional and psychological damage to alter the course of the rest of their lives.
The film is well-meaning on both topics, which makes it that much more difficult to relay that while it features an impressive cast (including the late Peter Fonda in his last screen role), it fails to work on several levels. The result is both inert and, even for a true story, uninspiring.
Sebastian Stan (Marvel’s Winter Soldier) stars as Scott Huffman, a Pentagon lawyer whose fast-track career hits a bump when his boss, the Secretary of the Air Force, resigns. Huffman and his colleague, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), will be looking for new jobs anyway–this is 1999 and the administration is about to change–although it doesn’t appear either man will have trouble finding one.
But then Huffman’s boss dumps what appears to be a thankless task in his lap: find out why a long-dead Air Force medic named William Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine) was not awarded the highest military accolade possible, the Medal of Honor, for saving at least nine men in an ugly 1967 battle that nearly turned into an all-out massacre. Pitsenbarger’s best friend and fellow medic, Thomas Tulley (William Hurt), has been pressing to see this happen, along with Pitsenbarger’s parents (Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd).
That launches Huffman on an at first cynical but eventually empathetic journey, gathering eyewitness accounts from the survivors of that day (all of whom suffer from PTSD in one form or another). And he tries to learn why Pitsenbarger, just 21 when he died, was not given the honor he so clearly deserved.
The Last Full Measure sidesteps the longstanding debates over the rationale (or lack thereof) behind the Vietnam War in favor of zeroing in on this small group of soldiers, an absence of context that doesn’t necessarily hurt the movie. What does kneecap it though is writer-director Todd Robinson’s increasingly grating sentimentality, which is aided by Philip Klein’s overbearing score. There is likewise a lack of clarity or real depth in Robinson’s repetitive, heavy-handed screenplay. Similarly, the limited budget gives this the look of a TV movie rather than a war picture or big screen procedural.
As Huffman pursues his investigation, the film rolls out one extended cameo after another by well-known stars taking showy turns as cliché approximations of Vietnam veterans: Fonda’s twitchy, clearly off-balance vet literally comes out only at night while Ed Harris’s Roy Mott battles his survivor’s guilt behind the wheel of a school bus; John Savage’s Chauncey Kepper has returned to live hermit-like in the jungle where he has built a butterfly garden over the spot where the massacre took place.
Samuel L. Jackson also turns up to initially bark angrily at Stan as you might expect, before delivering one of the more restrained walk-ons. You can’t help but feel a certain numbness setting in as each of these fine actors gets his moment to shine, or chew the scenery, while Stan stares grimly at them. Each of their accounts also cues a flashback to the battle itself, which is shown over and over again with increasingly diminishing impact.
Huffman’s own personal background is clumsily inserted into the story, seeking a connection between his non-relationship with his estranged dad and the plight of the veterans that never quite makes sense. Neither does the half-baked conspiracy that lies at the heart of the mystery over Pitsenbarger’s absent Medal of Honor, which just kind of stalls out in time for what is supposed to be a tear-inducing and cathartic final scene.
That’s the ultimate problem with The Last Full Measure: Robinson’s film almost demands that you break down and sob for these dead and wounded men, and does everything it can to wring those tears out of you. But forcing emotional responses out of moviegoers instead of letting it arise organically from the material doesn’t do the story or the veterans any justice at all.
Don’t get me wrong, there are genuinely moving moments in the film, primarily thanks to the skilled work of actors like Hurt, Harris, Plummer, and Fonda. And there’s no argument to be made against the underlying message of Pitsenbarger’s story and that of his fellow soldiers. The ghost of another movie, about the way those vets were treated by their government after they were killed or returned home, makes a fleeting appearance here. But for better or worse, that’s not the movie we got.
The Last Full Measure is out in theaters this Friday, Jan. 24.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye