A stultifying reminder that bad movies are often made with the best intentions, Todd Robinson’s “The Last Full Measure” certainly can’t be faulted for the integrity of its mission. As unambiguous with its agenda as it is incoherent with its storytelling, this clumsy but star-studded passion project recounts the ultimate sacrifice of Vietnam War hero William Pitsenbarger, a 21-year-old U.S. Air Force Pararescue medic who forfeited his own life in order to save at least nine of his fellow soldiers. Although Pitsenbarger’s bravery was posthumously rewarded with Air Force Cross, several of the men he saved were left wondering why his actions didn’t merit a Medal of Honor. It would turn out to be a more complicated and nefarious mystery than any of them might have guessed — one that would take more than 30 years to untangle.
A USC professor and journeyman creative best known behind the camera for the 2013 submarine thriller “Phantom,” Robinson has long-identified Pitsenbarger’s saga as a lucid example of how this country so often fails its veterans — whether they come back home or not. Apolitical to a fault and determined to avoid even a whiff of jingoism, Robinson’s film strains to show how surviving a war can make you even more invisible than dying in one, but “The Last Full Measure” is such a mess from the moment it starts that it’s difficult to see any of its intentions clearly. This cut-rate military drama makes an admirable attempt to bridge the gap between the Vietnam War and the veterans it cut loose, but there’s no hope of reconciling the two in a film where each scene feels hopelessly disconnected from the ones that came before it, and every character feels cobbled together from the stiffest clichés that other war movies left for dead on the battlefield.
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Borrowing its approach from “Spotlight” and its title from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “The Last Full Measure” unfolds like a stiff procedural wrapped around some of the hokiest war re-creations in recent memory. The story begins in September 1999, when a fictional Pentagon staffer named Scott Huffman (a very bored Sebastian Stan) is given the grunt work of investigating a Medal of Honor request on behalf of Pitsenbarger’s best friend and fellow pararescueman Sgt. Thomas Tulley (William Hurt, the only member of a stacked cast who’s consistently able to find something real in the fissures of this leaden screenplay). While Robinson’s script eventually becomes far too erratic to mine any genuine conflict from its clerical scenes, the film is still at its best when exploring the bureaucracy of valor; only in this mode does “The Last Full Measure” feel as though it’s encouraging us to look closer instead of making us cringe.
Things take a hard turn for the histrionic as soon as Scott hits the road on his wild goose chase, as the government middleman systemically visits an endless parade of two-dimensional archetypes who are willing to speak to Pitsenbarger’s heroism. Ed Harris, summoning every ounce of Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel energy he has left, pops up as one of the first interview subjects. A grizzled, misanthropic veteran who drives a school bus by day and chews on his survivor’s guilt by night, Ray Mott is the first of many different characters to surface and bark subtext right into the camera. There’s Samuel L. Jackson as Army vet Billy Takoda, who shows Scott the scars on his back and says things like “You never appreciate what American artillery can do until you see it kill your own people.”
And then there’s the late Peter Fonda, devoting his last screen performance to the role of a PTSD-afflicted vet who self-identifies as a vampire and uses a loaded shotgun as a walking stick. A certain stripe of ex-soldier might well identify with these haunted men, and Robinson deploys them all in the service of a movie about how supporting troops doesn’t require supporting the wars they fight, but seen in succession these caricatures are too hackneyed to feel like anything more than empty ciphers for their cause.
Few of these scenes contain information that meaningfully advances Scott’s goal, and all of them feel as though they were filmed during the actors’ lunch breaks on better jobs. It all builds to a bungled moment in which Scott visits a soldier named Kepper (John Savage) in contemporary Vietnam, and his steely bureaucratic veneer is shattered by a walk through a butterfly garden; imagine if the plastic bag scene from “American Beauty” were set atop a mass grave and you’ll be on the right track. Of course, by that point we’ve long since lost any sense of Scott’s emotional state, as the film’s patchwork editing swallows entire years in the span of a single cut (Scott’s wife is pregnant in one shot, only to be the mother of a toddler in the next).
The narrative flow is further disrupted by the numerous battle flashbacks, in which “War Horse” star Jeremy Irvine plays the young Pitsenbarger with a holy patina. Robinson clearly marshaled all the resources he could for this labor of love, but the money just wasn’t enough to support the full scope of his vision. The extensive (but fragmented) depictions of Pitsenbarger’s heroics are hokey in the extreme. Without the budget to recreate the full chaos of that fateful day, the battle footage doesn’t resemble a deadly ambush so much as it does a poorly directed Court TV dramatization of some kind. The actors chosen to play younger versions of Jackson, Hurt, Harris and the rest bear almost no resemblance to their adult counterparts, and the movie’s awkward structure actively conspires to muddle that connection.
Alas, there’s nothing the older cast can do about that. “You can’t change your past,” one of the elder statesman concludes, “but you can change your perspective on it.” He’s not wrong, and you want to support Robinson’s efforts to help along that cause, but “The Last Full Measure” is lost in the fog of war from the moment it starts.
Roadshow Attractions will release “The Last Full Measure” in theaters on January 24.