“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion” – Abraham Lincoln from his Gettysburg Address.
The Last Full Measure is two stories. One is the heroism of William H. Pitsenbarger during one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. The other is the battle waged by survivors and members of the families of the fallen to see the Air Force Cross awarded posthumously to “Pits” upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor (MOH).
In 1998 “Scott Huffman” (Sebastian Stan – I, Tonya) is an attorney working in the office of the Secretary of the Air Force. The morning the film begins, the Secretary announces his resignation in an unexpected move. With his future up in the air, Huffman is reminded of a task he’s been ignoring for some time. Huffman’s friend and mentor “Carlton Stanton” (Bradley Whitford – The Post) gave him this task and eventually we will find out he has a deeper involvement than Huffman knows. In 1966, the Air Force Cross was awarded posthumously to William H. Pitsenbarger for his heroism during the Battle of Xa Cam My (referred to throughout the movie as Operation Abilene, although this battle was only one part of that operation).
During the 32 years between that battle and when Huffman begins his investigation into the effort to upgrade the award, several of the men who were there on that day have been working to get Pits the MOH. At the forefront of this effort is “Tully” (William Hurt – Avenger’s – Infinity War). Tully was in the helicopter with Pits before Pits volunteered to rappel down to the raging battle below.
There are others who were there on that fateful April day who want to see the heroism of Pits honored. “Takoda” (Samuel L. Jackson – I Am Not Your Negro) was a young officer leading his men into a meatgrinder of an ambush. Now he is a cynical grandfather, suffused with survivor’s guilt. “Ray Mott” (Ed Harris – Snowpiercer from the brilliant mind of Bong Joon Ho who gave us this year’s masterpiece Parasite) was there. Now he drives a school bus. “Jimmy Burr” (the late Peter Fonda in his last live action role) was so affected by what happened that day that he now sleeps in the daytime because he simply cannot sleep at night. His wife “Donna” (Amy Madigan – Rules Don’t Apply) explains a bit about what her husband deals with on a daily basis.
As Huffman visits and talks to these men, he begins to gain an understanding of the sentiment of George Patton who famously said “I’d trade my immortal soul for that medal” referring to the Medal of Honor. We hear what he learned near the end of the film. Part of his journey toward advancing the recommendation to upgrade the Air Force Cross awarded to Pits to the Medal of Honor has him visiting one more man who was there. He goes to Vietnam to see “Kepper” (John Savage – The Deer Hunter) and his visit is transformative. There is scandal afoot as to why the original award was not the Medal of Honor. Adding this to the film attempts to create tension and blame someone for the injustice done to a man who made the ultimate sacrifice so that others might live. It detracts rather than enhances the experience.
In the flashbacks to that April day in 1966, Jeremy Irvine (The Railway Man) makes an excellent Pitsenbarger. You’d think with Dale Dye both acting in and acting as military advisor that they wouldn’t get the stripes on the uniform sleeve of the film’s hero wrong, but they do.
The dialogue ranges from superior to nearly wooden. With a cast of this caliber, the acting is as expected. Wonderful. Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd portray the parents of this true hero and do so magnificently. They have some of the best moments of the film.
The interviews with the real people involved in the story of Pits that flow during the first segment of the post-film credits may be the best parts of this movie.
What’s missing is what it takes for someone to become a “PJ” as Air Force Pararescue personnel are known. Before he undertook the first of more than 250 missions in Vietnam, William Pitsenbarger went through the Army’s Airborne training course, the Navy’s scuba diving school, survival school, rescue and survival medical training, jungle survival school, firefighting and air crash rescue. He was among the very first to be selected for this training right out of basic training. Nowadays, to qualify as a PJ takes two full years of training. 80% of those who begin the qualification process do not complete it. The training is referred to as “Superman School” by those in the know.
We get to see the extraordinary heroism of the man on the field of battle. That is ultimately what matters most.