Review: The Last Full Measure

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

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PLOT: A disinterested Pentagon staffer (Sebastian Stan) is ordered to review a petition to posthumously award a Congressional Medal of Honor to William H. Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine), an Air Force PJ who served in the Vietnam War and gave his life to save a platoon of soldiers pinned down by heavy fire. When faced with opposition from military brass, the staffer, through his interactions with the man’s family and the soldiers he saved, begins to take his job to heart and becomes hell-bent on seeing Pisenbarger awarded the decoration he deserves.

REVIEW: THE LAST FULL MEASURE feels like a relic from another time. Set in 1999, this is done very much in the style of a prestige movie made in that era – the kind of Oscar-bait drama a studio-like Castle Rock used to churn out regularly. Tastes have changed so much in twenty years that this kind of earnest drama is now seen as a big risk. Thus, it only hits the big screen (after a long journey) with an army of producers behind it, and it’s still only getting a modest release in select theaters, virtually guaranteeing most will only ever see it on the small screen despite some big names being involved.

While occasionally corny and melodramatic, writer-director Todd Robinson’s THE LAST FULL MEASURE still tells a relatively compelling tale. Pitsenbarger was a real guy and indeed his actions seem almost superheroic in hindsight. Much is made of his clear-eyed idealism, even amid the Vietnam War, and as such, this is similarly idealistic in a way that most modern war movies are not – further adding to the vibe that this feels almost like a lost flick from 15-20 years ago.

One thing that can’t be argued though is that the more compelling story is largely left off-screen. A movie about Pitsenbarger’s actions in the war would have been more exciting than the exploits of the Pentagon staffer looking to upgrade his decorations. There’s virtually no sense of conflict, with press material playing up the conspiracy to keep him from getting his medal, but it’s all dealt with rather innocuously in the film. Everyone’s motives are relatively good, with only Bradley Whitford as the sniveling aid to a former general, who may have an uncomfortable question or two to answer about the war, portrayed as an all-out bad guy. Even the general himself (the legendary Dale Dye) is portrayed as a relatively good guy who’s eager to see justice done. It’s very nice, but it’s not all that exciting.

As such the film fares best in the limited time it spends depicting Pitsenbarger’s actions during the war, although Robinson’s budget is way too low to evoke the chaos of what’s called over-and-over in the film, “one of the bloodiest days of the war.” Jeremy Irvine plays him, but given his character’s scant screen time, he never really emerges as a full-blooded character. He’s portrayed as almost Christ-like, with his entrance, where he repels down a line from a helicopter before removing his helmet to display his square-jawed, soft-lit movie star good looks a surprising cliché in a year that also saw the release of the stripped-down and gritty 1917. Next to that movie this feels almost archaic. Most of our time is spent following Sebastian Stan as the harried Washington staffer as he interviews the soldier’s old buddies, and it’s not a very interesting role for him as all he gets to do is ask questions and listen to stories. A version of the film where Stan himself played Pitsenbarger during the war would have been a lot more appealing, but he’s left with little to do here except react to his impressive, veteran co-stars.

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As such, it’s no surprise the people he interviews dominate throughout. Christopher Plummer is most prominent as Pitsenbarger’s terminally ill dad, who just wants to see his son recognized before he dies, with his kindly nature as a dad inspiring the fatherless Stan to be a more present dad in his son’s own life. It’s a surprisingly gentle part for Plummer, who tends to choose thornier roles, but he’s easily able to evoke the necessary warmth and kindness, and it’s always a kick to see how good he still is even if he’s now in his nineties. By far the best role in the film goes to Samuel L. Jackson as the PTSD-riddled former Platoon leader who blames himself for Pitsenbarger’s death, and Jackson goes for broke in his handful of scenes, with the most dynamic being when he tells Stan about how he tore up a bar upon his return from the war after they mocked his service. Ed Harris has a smallish part as another member of the platoon, while William Hurt is excellent as a fellow PJ who opted against diving into battle and has been punishing himself ever since.

Peter Fonda (in his last role), John Savage, and Amy Madigan also get some meaty scenes and it’s nice to see these vets get some juicy material, but all the great acting can’t help but be overwhelmed by the schmaltz it’s often buried in, with a sappy underscore and much speechifying. The fact is, audiences' tastes towards war movies have changed in the last twenty years or so, and while THE LAST FULL MEASURE might have gotten a more robust release in another era, nowadays it feels like something that belongs on TV rather than in theaters. It’s not a bad movie at all, but it’s a modest one that gets bogged down by making what should have been the B-story (the staffer trying to upgrade Pitsenbarger’s medal) into the A-story. It’s perfectly watchable but one can’t help but think there was another, more effective and modern way to make this movie.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.