Just a month before he died, Peter Fonda attended a screening of what would be his final film that opens this weekend, “The Last Full Measure.” When director Todd Robinson saw Fonda at the screening, he sensed something about the legendary actor was off.
Fonda plays a Vietnam war vet in “The Last Full Measure,” and last summer Robinson hosted a screening for the cast, crew and some of the real life subjects on whom the film is based. When Robinson tried to speak with Fonda at the event though, he got only a feeble wave in return and noticed Fonda had tears in his eyes.
“I said let’s get together and have lunch, and he just kind of waved. He turned and waved, and some people that I knew ended up in the elevator, I think he and his wife were there, said that he was just sobbing all the way down the garage,” Robinson told TheWrap. “And that’s the last time I saw him. But of course I had no idea what might be blended in with those emotions, if he knew if this might be his last film or not.”
“The Last Full Measure” is the true story of how a Pentagon staffer spent years working to bestow the Medal of Honor on Vietnam War pararescueman William “Pits” Pitsenbarger 30 years after his death in the war. And it’s fitting that Fonda’s final film role is a movie about legacy and honoring the memory of those we’ve lost, even long after they’re gone.
Fonda, who died last August at 79, gives an intense, yet vulnerable performance in a small role as a former soldier rescued by Pits who is “tougher than a 2 dollar steak” and is suffering from so many war-related traumas that he can only sleep during the daytime. In one scene with the film’s star Sebastian Stan, Fonda found a visceral way to illustrate his character’s PTSD brought about after killing men in Vietnam.
“I felt really bad for about 12 hours, and then I didn’t feel bad about anything,” Fonda says as he picks up a rabbit he’s caught and snaps its neck.
Robinson is quick to point out that no animals were harmed in the making of his film, but that it was Fonda’s idea to attempt that hard-to-watch moment, and he admired the many ideas and friendly demeanor Fonda brought to set.
“I’m always pinching myself a little bit wondering how I got in this place in time with this person, because it’s such a privilege to borrow their talents for my own palette of colors that I’m putting out into the story,” Robinson said. “It never occurred to me as I watching Peter do that these would be the last frames of his life. It kind of made me think about that and wish I’d been able to spend more time with him. He was just full of stories and wisdom from a lifetime of intense experiences.”
Robinson shot the film in 2017, part of a long, 20-year journey in which “The Last Full Measure” was kicked into turnaround and cycled through a cavalcade of stars. The final film boasts an impressive cast worthy of a miniature Marvel movie, including Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Ed Harris, Bradley Whitford, Amy Madigan and of course, Fonda. And more than just a war movie, Robinson tells a story of sacrifice over self-interest, blending combat footage with scenes of these hardened war vets sharing their stories, much of it testimony that Robinson compiled from his own interviews with the real subjects and put directly into the script.
“It’s about service greater than self in a world where PTS is a scourge and a plague. The secret tonic is doing something for other people. It gives you purpose and it will heal you,” Robinson said. “Any random act of kindness is like the proverbial pebble in the pond, and those concentric circles just go out and out and you never know how far they’re going to reach. Had Pitsenbarger been given the Medal in 1966, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s only through the prism of time that we understand the meaning of sacrifice.”
Fonda also told Robinson about his own PTS and related deeply to his character. So he was heartbroken when Robinson learned from Fonda’s publicist that he had died and that “The Last Full Measure” would be Fonda’s last movie.
“I was just sitting there with these thoughts, and just the idea that somehow I ended up being the last guy to capture a performance of his suddenly weighed heavily on me,” Robinson said. “I just really hoped as a director and writer I had done right by him.”