John McKeown on Todd Robinson’s ‘The Last Full Measure’ (2019)
“The last full measure of devotion” was how US President Abraham Lincoln described the ultimate sacrifice made by Union soldiers when dedicating the military cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863. Writer-director Todd Robinson’s Vietnam War memory film The Last Full Measure, takes its cue from Lincoln’s paean in a long, slow decanting of the story of one William H. Pitsenbarger, posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for saving the lives of scores of soldiers one afternoon in April 1966. As an Air Force Pararescueman, or “PJ”, rather than a soldier, Pitsenbarger’s actions were the more remarkable, since his only remit was to haul the wounded out of a particularly sticky moment during “Operation Abilene,” a significant action in the early part of the war.
Pitsenbarger’s actions certainly merited more than the lower-tier Air Force Cross he was originally awarded. Robinson’s story details how this “injustice” was corrected but relies on confused and severely limited conceptual content, wrapped up in increasingly unsubtle, pungent emotionalism, whose irritation quotient is increased by the mind-numbing repetitiveness of aerial shots. These are mostly used to close and open scenes, or maybe as a glaze to sweeten our impatience with the grindingly slow unfolding of the mostly verbal action, which frequent jump cuts to the Vietnam of ’66 do little to inhibit.
I see absolutely no evidence of the “heart-pounding excitement” one Observer critic found in the film, or anything in the “tradition of The Deer Hunter,” except the similarity between the Pennsylvania and District of Columbia countryside. Nor do any of the vets convey the sense of alienation Vietnam vet Jon Voight feels in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978). Samuel L. Jackson‘s character, Billy Takoda, gives a nod in this direction when he tells sleek pentagon staffer Scott (Sebastian Stan), the hot-shot careerist tasked with dealing with the case, that he was “a refugee in my own country” after being demobbed. But, as a black man, he’d doubtless have grown up with that feeling anyway.
Jackson’s Takoda is one of the embittered veterans whose life was saved by “Pits” on the day of the battle. It’s these individual testimonies told to Scott in the earlier stages, and performed by a roster of fine veteran actors, that give the film its dramatic sinew. Each vet has a particular problem which has been rankling for three decades (the film is set in 1999) and absolution only seems possible if Pits’ actions get the recognition they deserve.
Billy Takoda, it turns out, suffers tremendous guilt for phoning in the wrong coordinates during the battle, putting his platoon in the kill zone of friendly artillery. William Hurt is Tully, Pits’ co-PJ, who winched him down from the helicopter into the bloody brouhaha and left him there. Ed Harris is Ray Mott, who’s been sitting on the last letter Pits wrote to his girlfriend but failed to deliver it. Finally, Peter Fonda, in his last film role, is the PTSD-ridden Jimmy Burr, who takes Scott for a little stroll in the woods near his cabin retreat one night and uses a quivering, freshly caught rabbit to punctuate his final sentence to the nervous Scott.
These are all compelling portrayals, so compelling that they denude other areas in the film of substance. Likewise, Christopher Plummer, playing Pits’ aged father, dying of cancer but determined that his son gets that Congressional Medal of Honour in his lifetime, has a scene in which he stands with his back to Scott in his son’s bedroom, looking out of the window and reliving his memories. Plummer seems to become a finer actor the older he gets and here, the power of his performance could make even the most silk-lined throat harden.
Indeed, throat-hardening, if not outright tears, is what the film seems bent on achieving, for both its central character and the audience. Tears through which we can learn the importance of keeping faith with the fallen. Scott, already drawn deeper than he’d like into the case, has been warned by his cynical boss Carlton (Bradley Whitford) “not to open a can of worms,” having discovered that some vital information on Pits’ Congressional Medal application is missing, perhaps removed by higher-ups who want to keep enlisted men from winning the award; he should stay true to his “predatory instinct” and not “get sentimental on me.” But clouds of sentimentality and life-changing emotional toxins are gathering quicker than clouds of Agent Orange, soaking into every fibre of Robinson’s script, as he tightens the plot strings to squeeze out anything that doesn’t contribute to the weightiness of the moral dilemma the once-ambitious, now-humbled Scott faces.
Billy Takoda tells him with uncharacteristic unambiguity that only Scott’s success in getting the Medal for Pits will make his life worthwhile, it’s the only “decent thing I got to pull out of that war.” Later, Tom Tully relates how he washed Pits’ remarkably intact corpse, which we see in slow-mo, the sponge gently wiping the limbs and dripping with droplets of life-giving water, wiping away the last traces of any imperfections to leave the self-sacrificial Pits gleaming like the risen Christ. The Christ motif is also highlighted in the various close-ups on wounds sustained by the vets, wounds that only Pits’ Congressionally-acknowledged apotheosis can heal.
And just to maintain the pressure on the weary greasy-pole climber, Pits’ dad Frank, invited to Thanksgiving Dinner at Scott’s house, asks if he can give the Blessing before digging into the turkey. Scott agrees but, if the lowering look he aims at his wife is anything to go by, regrets his generosity, as Frank calls on both God and Abe Lincoln to “Give praise to this young man as he honours us with his commitment to ensure that the sacrifices of the fallen were neither in vain nor will they ever be forgotten.” Carlton has assured Scott that an intern will solve the Pits Medal Conundrum, but there’s no way Scott can leave it alone now, and he takes off to visit the scene of Pits’ death in Vietnam.
Here, more symbolic images are waiting to explode like mines. At the hands of Chauncy Kepper (John Savage), the infantry sergeant who wrote the After-Action Report the day Pits died and passed it up to Colonel, now Senator, Holt (Dale Dye), the spot where Pits first ‘came down’ from the helicopter has been transformed into a butterfly sanctuary. Here, Kepper, a self-styled spiritual therapist, gets Scott to unburden himself and, in the words of Disney’s Frozen song, “let it go.” It’s not the kind of scene you’d normally associate with Savage, but he acquits himself well, his mask-like frown cracking into a single smile when a butterfly brushes against him, and is convincing in his bemused perplexity at the notion of the sanctuary being the same place as the spot where all that death and bloodshed took place thirty-three years before.
After Kepper peppers him with some deep-breathing instructions and a blast of mystical name-dropping: “It isn’t Abilene. It’s Avalon now…Avalon!” Scott breaks down in a brief fit of macho crying, looking like he’s trying to clear something sharp from between his molars with just the muscles of his face. But he does get the crucial piece of information he needs, and once back in the US, he confronts Senator Holt, who’s having lunch at his golf club with Carlton. Holt turns out to be a man of integrity, rather than the soulless Machiavellian the earlier hints of a conspiracy had led us to expect, who made a genuine mistake in not ensuring Pits got his Congressional Medal and vows to rectify it.
Pits gets his Medal, the vets are abstemiously overjoyed and Frank, who’s been holding the Grim Reaper at bay until Scott ‘honours’ his commitment to ensure the fallen didn’t die in vain, can die fulfilled. The ceremony, in the National Museum of the Air Force overflows any measure of restraint when it comes to hammering the point home; the point being that however questionable a system, administrative or political, might be, it only takes One Good Man to get it back on track.
Scott is that man for Pits and the vets, while Pits was the man, albeit, “moved by the higher angel of duty,” for the whole of America, and by extension of course, the world. But this message gets rather muddied along the way. Earlier, Scott, musing on why Pits sacrificed himself when he didn’t have to, concludes that Pits “wasn’t going to let a bullet stop him from being what he was” which points more toward an urge to self-fulfilment rather than self-sacrifice. Later he tells a senator at the Pentagon that soldiers die for each other rather than their commanding officers, which points away from self-fulfilment to a more localised, even spiteful, clan loyalty.
The flashbacks to the bullet-riddled afternoon when Pits overflowed with the ‘full measure of devotion’ certainly have as much reality as any other Vietnam war movie such as Platoon (1986), or Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), though far less grisly. And there’s a battle scene where Robinson shows he can be extremely subtle when he wants to, playing with our filmic expectations. Members of the platoon gather around a wounded Viet guerilla, weapons at the ready, and we draw breath, expecting a piece of gory, unleashed savagery. Instead the flashback is terminated, and we’re returned to the present, where Peter Fonda’s fingers are locked around that poor rabbit as he relates those moments in the jungle. It’s the rabbit who gets it in the neck, rather than the wounded guerilla, but that single twist of Fonda’s fingers—rather as if the Emperor Caligula had his wish for the Roman People to have a single neck—is far more sickening than any amount of battle-crazed butchery.
The film needs far more of this kind of subtle defeat of our expectations. But, as it is, there are no surprises as Scott, a kind of Saint Peter to Pits’ Christ, correcting the “injustice” done him in the lack of recognition of his outpouring of “devotion”, is put through his paces to the inevitable, mass tear-jerking denouement.
The Last Full Measure is available in the UK on all major digital platforms 1st June 2020.