There’s always a difficulty in criticising films that are made with such sincerity, focused on a story that’s genuinely inspiring. But sometimes that very sincerity is what can end up sinking a film, despite the best of intentions. Such is the case with The Last Full Measure, an undoubtedly rousing story that’s hampered by a heavy handed approach that doesn’t seem to trust in the implicit power that its story already carries with it.
That said story focuses on the effort to have the Medal of Honor posthumously awarded to William H. ‘Pits’ Pitsenberger (Jeremy Irvine), a young soldier who was killed in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War after saving the lives of over 60 men. Cut to 1999, some thirty years after Pits’ death, where Department of Defense Attorney Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), is assigned to investigate the request to award Pits the Medal of Honor, a request that has been pursued by Pits’ family and the men he saved ever since the war in Vietnam ended. Huffman soon discovers that there may in fact be a deeper conspiracy afoot that has kept the actions of this young brave soldier out of the public eye.
The Last Full Measure uses Huffman’s investigation to chart out the events that led to Pits’ death and the heroic acts he committed in the last hours of his life. Throughout the film, as Huffman meets the veterans saved by Pits, the battle that took his life is dramatised, following Irvine as Pits as he interacts with the young men who grow into the veterans played by Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, Peter Fonda, John Savage and William Hurt in Huffman’s investigation in 1999.
That list of actors should go some way to demonstrate the strong pedigree of talented actors that this film boasts, a cast which also includes Bradley Whitford, Diane Ladd, and Christopher Plummer. It is a strong cast of very accomplished actors, and it is largely in the supporting roles where the film comes to life and carries the weight of its true story most effectively. This is particularly the case with the performances of Jackson, Harris, Savage, Hurt, and Fonda (in one of his last roles). All of their characters suffer from their own respective levels of PTSD and survivors guilt, and it’s a refreshing take to follow the lives of these men some thirty years after their service, desperately trying to find some peace by seeing Pits finally (and rightly) recognised for his bravery. The same is true for the performances of Ladd and Plummer as Pits’ aging parents, both effectively tugging at the heartstrings with the level grace you’d expect from such celebrated actors.
Where the film is less successful is in its dialogue and staging. Much of said dialogue, particularly when it comes to Stan’s go-getting Pentagon staffer whose callous ambition slowly gets eroded and turned into compassion by the people he meets along his investigation. Stan struggles in the role; he’s a little too vacant and not convincing enough when it comes to the change in Huffman’s demeanour, something which the script doesn’t particularly help him with, as it often resorts to treacly, corny cliches, all set to an overbearing score that’s doing its best Thomas Newman impression.
The scenes set in Vietnam are also a disappointment. The structure of the story is such that the return to flashbacks feels repetitive, and often difficult to place in a timeframe of Pits’ last moments. The scale of the battle feels diminished, lacking the impact needed for an event that many people in the film describe as one of the bloodiest battles in the war. It can often be difficult to truly gauge the gravity and desperation of the situation of the battle with details too thinly sketched to provide that much in the way of impact or insight. These war-time scenes are also fighting for space in a film that already has a number of characters and threads going on within, leaving the film crowded and the structure episodic.
A talented cast of famous faces aren’t quite enough to pull this war-time tale out of the mud of corny cliche. The true story of William Pits is one that should be shared, as should all tales of veterans coming to terms with whatever feelings of guilt and/or anger they have surrounding their experiences. The Last Full Measure offers pockets of affective catharsis for these men, moments which make this telling worthwhile, even if you can’t shake the feeling that a more subtle and focused approach could have gone a long way.
Dir: Todd Robinson
Scr: Todd Robinson
Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Diane Ladd, Bradley Whitford, John Savage, Peter Fonda
Prd: Julian Adams, Michael Bassick, Timothy Scott Bogart, Nicholas Cafritz, Adi Cohen, Mark Damon, Pen Densham, Robert Reed Peterson, Jordi Reliu, Shaun Sanghani, Lauren Selig, Sidney Sherman, John Watson
DOP: Byron Werner
Music: Philip Klein
Country: United States
Run time: 110 minutes
The Last Full Measure is available on demand from June 1st.