When Abraham Lincoln addressed soldiers in 1863, he did so in one of the most famous speeches in history — the Gettysburg Address. Delivered on a cemetery, he used the words, “From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion” — a line that bears much weight, to this day. One line from this quote now serves as the title of a movie released on January 24, 2020, The Last Full Measure, which tells the story of a war hero and a late, but deserved, honor.
Based on a true story, the movie deals with the achievements of Vietnam War Hero William H. Pitsenbarger, a member of the Air Force and a Pararescueman, who saved several hundred soldiers during the war and died in action, helping a group of soldiers who were caught in an ambush. Pitsenbarger was originally awarded the Airforce Cross, but after an effort by fellow soldiers and various supporters, this was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, something only a few Airforce Members have received in the past.
Written and directed by Todd Robinson, The Last Full Measure shows a star-studded cast, including such names as Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson and in his first leading role, Marvel star Sebastian Stan. Stan portrays a Pentagon employee named Scott Hoffmann who – involuntarily – accepts the job of investigating the possibilities of Pitsenbarger being rewarded the Medal of Honor.
Warning: Plot spoilers beyond this point!
In the beginning of the movie, we meet Hoffmann as a stereotypical Pentagon staffer without much empathy, but a lot of ambition for his job. When he is first “burdened” with his new task, he doesn’t see the appeal for him and his career, which shows him as cold, disinterested and not emotionally involved. Throughout the movie, though, we see him growing more interested and invested in the project. Stan shows versatility in his portrayal of Hoffmann by showing his weaknesses and his strengths, and by demonstrating growth and doubt at the same time.
In the film, there is a rather defining quote, when Hoffmann visits Vietnam to interview more people involved with the original mission, “You can’t change the past, but you can choose the perspective.” This phrase sums up the core issue of the film and many other historic narratives in general. After all, history is less fact and more interpretation, subjective awareness and yes, perspective. A person involved in the situation from the American side might look at the events completely differently than a person from the Vietnamese side — and this realization is what makes history and its interpretation interesting and important.
When Hoffmann searches for the truth, for evidence of Pitsenbarger’s heroism, he is not only confronted with the horrific events of the war, he is also suddenly surrounded by the reality of the military, by the trauma and devastation caused by senseless fights.
Going into the movie, I was expecting it to be glorifying of military culture and war in general, of heroic men laying down their lives for the greater good, and while there were those elements in the movie, the main idea wasn’t to show people how necessary and important acts of war are, it was to show people the lives affected by it. The way the director decides to switch between the calm and collected, almost present, and the loud, violent and terrifying past of the Vietnam war, he connects these two worlds. When he shows veterans still suffering from PTSD, from distrust and illnesses caused by their time in the war, they become a bridge between that past and that present.
Hoffmann starts with an attitude of reluctance and disinterest, gaining him little to no respect from the veterans he’s supposed to interview. While Takoda (played marvelously by Samuel L. Jackson) just throws the recorder into the water, Whit Peters (played by Peter Fonda) shows how his trauma still affects him and confronts Hoffmann with his issues and hesitance to let himself be drawn into the tragedy that these veterans experienced. This is one of the strengths of this movie: we see real progress not in great research, but human and emotional connection. This, of course, is enforced not only by Hoffmann’s connection to the case, but also by the other people involved, namely Ray Mott (played by Ed Harris), who works as a connection between the case and the investigator, but also Pitsenbarger’s parents, Frank (Christopher Plummer) and Alice (Diane Ladd). The latter not only work as that connection, but also as a sort of mirror of Hoffmann’s family, who in the beginning seems like nothing but a plot device, but blossoms into a manifestation of his growing involvement and personal emotional journey.
Two scenes are particularly moving and both represent important points in the movie’s narrative. One is the scene in Vietnam, where Hoffmann visits Kepper (John Savage) in a sanctuary he has built in the place where the ambush that killed Pitsenbarger occurred. It serves as an epiphany and a moment of emotional clarity for Hoffmann, and Stan’s performance in the scene is utterly honest and heartbreaking. We see a character who’s finally breaking free of his limitations caused by his ego, and ready to take on work that matters more than a ribbon and the name of a medal; it matters in the big picture of things and to the lives that were touched and saved by one single person.
The other is, of course, the emotional finale of the movie — the ceremony in which Pitsenbarger’s parents are awarded their son’s Medal of Honor, surrounded not only by the men he rescued but by other veterans, military family members and the people who paved the way to make this award possible. While the movie did receive the Hollywood treatment, that doesn’t diminish the effect of seeing the conclusion and the satisfaction of reaching the goal the soldiers had aimed at for so long.
All in all, The Last Full Measure is a thought-provoking film in the sense that it makes us question our perspective on history and certain events, and how our involvement may change other people’s lives. It is not a movie that will pass the Bechdel test anytime soon, but it is a movie that approaches the subject of war and its unsung heroes in a refreshing way, where it doesn’t glorify, but tries to show the pain and struggle without making it into an action spectacle. Finally, Sebastian Stan delivers a brilliant performance in his first leading role. He shows raw emotion and a life-defining journey in his delivery of the role, without overacting or showing too much pathos. His work on this movie shows that he is fit for an even bigger and more successful career in the future and marks a milestone for him as an actor.