‘The Last Full Measure’ Shines Powerful Light on a True Hero of the Vietnam War

This film honors the story of Air Force rescue medic William H. Pitsenbarger, whose legacy was unknown for 32 years.

Jeremy Irvine in The Last Full Measure
Jeremy Irvine in The Last Full Measure. Roadside Attractions

It’s rare to see a war film you can truthfully label poignant, but The Last Full Measure combines the heart-pounding excitement of 1917 with the urgent, deeply moving emotional honesty of Saving Private Ryan to tell a heroic but somehow overlooked story of courage under fire that now emerges as one of the most valuable chapters to emerge from the debacle of Vietnam.

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Beautifully chronicled by writer-director Todd Robinson, it’s the true story of William H. Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine), an Air Force rescue medic whose heroism and valor saved some 60 regular soldiers in one of the bloodiest battles of what many consider the most stupid, indefensible and unnecessary war in U.S. history. Instead of escaping heavy enemy fire in the last helicopter, he remained behind in the combat zone to help the stranded, outnumbered 1st Infantry Division survive, paying the ultimate price with his own life. For the next 32 years, proposals were repeatedly made by one of his comrades, represented by the fictionalized character Master Sgt. Thomas Tulley (William Hurt), to honor him posthumously with the distinguished Medal of Honor, and every time it came up, the subject was wrongfully ignored. Finally, the Pentagon assigned a civilian lawyer, named Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) in the film (based on real-life historian W. Parker Hayes, Jr.), to investigate. The movie reveals the shocking, shameful details of what he discovered: an injustice buried for three decades by a handful of corrupt and incompetent congressmen too embarrassed and guilt-ridden to draw public attention to their mistakes in costing the lives of so many innocent men who died following incompetent orders from a chain of command that should have been banished from the military forever. Parallels to the toxic ignorance that rules so much of what passes for redemption and justice today on Pennsylvania Avenue are inescapable.

(3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Todd Robinson
Written by: Todd Robinson
Starring: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irvine
Running time: 115 mins.

The deadly title The Last Full Measure will surely deter many filmgoers from seeing this important film and discovering its value for themselves, and sometimes the well-researched dialogue is so steeped in authentic military shorthand that the film tends to sag, but both the meticulous script and sensitive direction signal in Todd Robinson the virtues of a major filmmaker at work. And everything is invaluably enriched and informed by a fantastic cast that includes Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Amy Madigan, Linus Roache, John Savage, LisaGay Hamilton and Peter Fonda in his profoundly and deeply felt final film performance.

On Dec. 8, 2000, the Medal of Honor was at last presented to William Pitsenbarger’s parents (Ladd and Plummer) in a ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. He became one of only three airmen in history to receive the nation’s highest military recognition. The powerful impact of that day is recreated in one of the film’s most overwhelming scenes. Veterans young and old wept openly then, and history repeated itself at the screening I attended. That’s one indication that a fine film lives on and off the screen, which The Last Full Measure does in spades. ‘The Last Full Measure’ Shines Powerful Light on a True Hero of the Vietnam War