The Last Full Measure – Film Review

With a who’s who to rival any red-carpet event, The Last Full Measure certainly has anticipated potential. Inspired by the true story of a super hero US Air Force medic who saved the lives of 60 men during the Vietnam War, the film adopts a fictionalised, investigatory documentary style approach. Reminiscent of Dark Waters in places, the stellar ensemble carries this film, however.

Told through a series of flashbacks interspersed with a legal litigation battle, The Last Full Measure is a combination of a war film and a David versus Goliath tale. Given the real life events on which it is based, the film does not present any surprises. As such, The Last Full Measure is a tad predictable, uneven in tone and slow paced.

The inspirational story of Vietnam War hero medic, William H Pitsenbarger may or may not be familiar to a UK audience. Within The Last Full Measure, Pitsenbarger’s acts of courage are replayed and so we are aware from the outset that Pitsenbarger was highly regarded by the soldiers for risking his life to save so many on the battlefield and epitomised that concept of ‘deeds, not words’. This level of admiration from his colleagues is deep felt as they attempt for over 30 years to ensure that Pitsenbarger’s efforts are recognised posthumously.

Jeremy Irvine as William Pitsenbarger in The Last Full Measure
Jeremy Irvine as William Pitsenbarger in The Last Full Measure

The Last Full Measure adopts a sentimental, affecting tone as the impacts of war on the surviving men is slowly revealed. This aspect may not be original as such insights have been covered by other films portraying veterans suffering from PTSD but The Last Full Measure is unafraid to explore the depths of the tragedies and its psychological impact on others in an uncompromising manner. Some of the men are unable to discuss together the devastation they had experienced, leading to silent late night calls. Others still physically bear the scars from the war with visible bullet hole scars, nightmares or loss of some hearing. This is interspersed with the flashbacks of the atrocities encountered with some visceral, extremely graphic scenes.

Despite the purpose of the litigation being to award Pitsenbarger, unfortunately The Last Full Measure does not focus on him as a character. It would have been preferable to witness more of Pitsenbarger and his heroism. Whilst the moments in which Pitsenbarger appears are fleeting in a few scenes, he creates an impression and the tone is set for poignant moments. It appears that this reference to Pitsenbarger has not been developed fully to create a long lasting impact as the character feels sidelined.

Yes, such scenes with Pitsenbarger are emotional, as is fitting for portraying the casualties of war. But, there is also the sensation that The Last Full Measure has missed an opportunity to achieve emotional resonance from the audience, not least as Jeremy Irvine’s portrayal of Pitsenbarger is rather charismatic, despite uttering few words!
Instead, the focus lies with the fictionalised investigation to unearth the rationale for such a terrible injustice committed against Pitsenbarger.

Samuel L Jackson in The Last Full Measure
Samuel L Jackson in The Last Full Measure

The Last Full Measure at such moments replicates other military courtroom tales such as A Few Good Men and investigative films such as Spotlight. However, The Last Full Measure lacks the tautly drawn dramatic tension of those former films. Adopting a quasi-documentary approach, as various military veterans are interviewed, the ensemble cast including Samuel L Jackson, Christopher Plummer, Ed Harris, William Hurt and Peter Fonda provide the star quality and deliver a range of powerhouse performances. Notably, it is particularly interesting to view Samuel L Jackson’s understated but stirring performance as a war-scarred veteran.

The Last Full Measure misguidedly places more emphasis on this litigation battle reluctantly led by Scott Huffman. Fans of the Marvel franchise may recognise Sebastian Stan as Huffman, who admittedly performs well outside of his previous comic book superhero roles such as Bucky Barnes. Huffman is the protagonist of The Last Measure rather than Pitsenbarger which effectively relegates Pitsenbarger’s activities to that of a B-roll sub-plot. It is an unfortunate directional choice, however, by Todd Robinson but it appears that The Last Full Measure was 20 years in the making!

Sebastian Stan in The Last Full Measure
Sebastian Stan in The Last Full Measure

Robinson makes more effective directional choices with the use of aerial shots over the battleground showing the beauty of the surroundings prior to the devastation. Immersive shots during fighting scenes are reminiscent of 1917 and are equally uncompromising in revealing the abject terror. Impressive wide-angle shots of the tombs of fallen soldiers and a war memorial listing the names of those killed at war silently depict those horrors of war with an understated elegance. The Last Full Measure also does not avoid demonstrating the full extent of survivors’ guilt which is revealed little by little as the film progresses to riveting effect.

The Last Full Measure given its real life background is additionally poignant knowing that it was the last, posthumous role in which Peter Honda starred and so such moments may leave a lump in your throat. Whilst The Last Full Measure embraces the tropes common to many war stories and also those within an investigative legal tale, there is some beautiful cinematography on display with scenes of a waterfall cascading as an example.

The Last Full Measure is skilfully edited transitioning between the present and the flashbacks seamlessly. Whilst the subject matter may seem grim, the film is interjected with humour. However, I felt that The Last Full Measure could have ramped up the emotion further concerning Pitsenbarger’s heroic activities rather than reducing them. This is particularly key given the tremendous post-humous efforts from his colleagues for Pitsenbarger to be recognised for his action with an award of the Medal of Honor. Overall, The Last Full Measure embodies that feeling of triumph intermingled with loss but needs a bit more energy to engage its audience.

The Last Full Measure will be released in the UK on digital platforms on 1 June 2020

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