It’s easy to say, “Oh, another Vietnam movie.” The 1950s, ’60s and ’70s war is just about the most popular of America’s conflicts portrayed onscreen, with more films than you realize being about Vietnam veterans: “Taxi Driver,” “Rambo,” “Kong: Skull Island.” Heck, Wolverine is a Vietnam vet.
What sets “The Last Full Measure” apart from those, though, is that its emotionally tormented characters are real — and their struggles in the ensuing decades, as a result, are more profound. So is their righteous goal: to get the Medal of Honor awarded to an Air Force pararescueman who lost his life saving them 33 years earlier.
Their deep need to revive the memory of that man — William Pitsenbarger — and thus close out the most painful chapter of their lives, should be enough to give the film heft and power. But writer-director Todd Robinson is the victim of his own noble intentions, turning each and every moment into an ice bucket of sentiment.
The lack of subtlety begins with the main character, Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), a pissant Pentagon lawyer, who is begrudgingly assigned to interview Pitsenbarger’s compatriots about his military service after another veteran appeals to Huffman’s boss. The civilian lawyer is a climber who has zero interest in the armed services and is aiming for a flashier post in Washington.
Huffman starts out as a total jerk to the vets — played by Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, William Hurt and the late Peter Fonda — half-listening to their heart-wrenching stories with the petulance of a teen in detention, until he has a change of heart so jarring, it’s practically a transplant.
The interviews introduce appropriately visceral flashbacks to Operation Abilene, where Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine) became a hero by saving a group of men he’d never met.
Harris and Hurt’s characters, a school bus driver and hospice caretaker, respectively, are the most riveting, and they strive to rein in the script’s teary excesses. But Christopher Plummer, as Pitsenbarger’s surviving dad, is given sickly sweet material.
And Bradley Whitford, trading the West Wing for the Pentagon, plays a colleague of Huffman’s who is pure evil — until the final scene when he’s suddenly super nice. Whitford comes just short of sticking his head out a window on Christmas morning and shouting, “Boy, what day is it?!”