About 30 minutes into Todd Robinson’s new Pentagon film, “The Last Full Measure,” you begin to fear that it will be just another political office drama centered around powerful men puffing out their chests and stepping on each other to get ahead. (You know, like “The West Wing,” but futile).
But once it gets past the smug banter between colleagues, the film, inspired by actual events, finally shifts towards something far more meaningful: Vietnam war veterans struggling with PTSD and their relationship with heroism.
It’s an intriguing bait-and-switch that is first presented through glimpses of staggering combat sequences and explosions breathtakingly shot by Byron Werner (Robinson’s “Phantom”) intercut with tense tête-à-têtes between Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford) and Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), Pentagon colleagues flailing after the sudden departure of a high-ranking official.
“The Last Full Measure” isn’t so much about war or the contentious relationship between those two men, which threatens to weigh down the film at times. Robinson admirably attempts to steady the narrative once Scott is assigned to what he thinks is a throwaway task: hearing out former U.S. Air Force Pararescue medic Tulley (William Hurt), who is requesting a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his best friend and fellow medic William Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine, “War Horse”).
What at first seems like a useless endeavor by an old man sporting a hearing aid and staring down the barrel of his own life, decades after William’s heroic acts, becomes a passionate plea for Scott (as well as the audience) to understand the sacrifices of men in battle. That’s when the film finds its rhythm and clicks into place. When Scott reluctantly accepts this mission to dig into the case of why William never received the medal of honor despite laying his life on the line, Robinson introduces us to the rest of the members of fallen soldier’s squad, who are each grappling with his death.
The film shines a light on our general lack of empathy toward men who fight in wars, who leave their families behind and ultimately must disconnect themselves from the horrors they experience in battle. They’re also the men who are looked at as the toughest, most virile people on the planet. In “The Last Full Measure,” those same men are humanized to reveal the nightmares, the guilt, the trauma they still must deal with daily, 32 years after those events.
As he weaves together the stories of each of these men and their families — movingly brought to life by Samuel L. Jackson, John Savage, the late Peter Fonda and Ed Harris, Hurt as well as Diane Ladd and Christopher Plummer as William’s parents — Robinson reaches a bit too hard to provoke compassion for Scott. The story of the Pentagon all-star’s relationship, or lack thereof, with his estranged dad has no essential bearing in the heart of the film, and yet the filmmaker awkwardly tries to use it as a way to narrow the divide between Scott and the veterans or perhaps to derive more sympathy from the audience. It’s unnecessary.
While it remains to be seen if it was Stan’s or Robinson’s decision for Scott to be so affected by an account of the events surrounding William’s courageous death that he starts crying, it seems a bit manipulative considering the way filmmaker presents the narrative. Up until this point, Scott seems like he’s merely performing a mission. Once the soldiers share their stirring details, Scott, his pregnant wife Tara (Alison Sudol in a thankless role), and his son Luke (Asher Miles Fallica, “Greener Grass”) become far less interesting. Scott’s breakdown plays like an empty attempt to boost his presence in someone else’s story.
While that scene feels ultimately unnecessary, Robinson does deserve praise for highlighting emotional vulnerability in a very male war movie, portraying each of these men as mere shells of the people they once were. (It’s a decision confirmed in the closing-credits clips of the real-life veterans reflecting on William and Vietnam.) Even with their tortured memories, they have a shared effort to preserve, and to implore the government to review and not overlook, the honor of the man who in some way saved all their lives (and ultimately the lives of 60 men) in exchange for his own.
Their tales and tortured consciences, illuminated by Philip Klein’s heartrending score, are what ground the movie and give it a sensibility that Scott’s character never achieves. It would have perhaps been more effective to tell the story from Tulley’s point of view, which would have offered a more personal approach to its themes, instead of a climax that includes swirling Pentagon conspiracies involving the circumvention of William’s medal.
At its core, “The Last Full Measure” is a poignant reevaluation of gallantry and of how survivor’s guilt impacts those veterans whose lives were spared. It’s not without its flaws, and Robinson’s wobbly narrative bears much of the blame, but its emotional resonance will stay with you long afterward.