Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Winter Soldier) stars as an ambitious Department of Defense staffer tasked with gathering combat testimony from Vietnam for a posthumous Medal of Honor request in The Last Full Measure, a VFW tearjerker that opens Friday at select area theaters.
Directed by Todd Robinson (Phantom), the film assembles a smorgasbord of actors in their 60s and 70s to deliver emotional monologues about the terror of a botched 1966 operation and the valor of an Air Force para-jumper, William Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine), who saved many of their lives. William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris and Peter Fonda (in the final performance before his death) are all thus featured. Many of their scenes are performed with big and often vividly externalized emotions, but they become somewhat tiresome in the aggregate.
Christopher Plummer — still appearing in at least one film per year at age 90 — portrays the father of Pitsenbarger. It's he who is responsible for the film's most touching scene, a monologue about the things he misses about his son, (how he folded his clothes for this mother, how he tapped his cleats for good luck when he stepped up to bat, "and how he always found my eyes when he crossed home plate"), and his sorrow that his son never got to have children of his own.
The film is overwhelmed with heartfelt content of this sort. It almost feels like a stage play designed as an actors' showcase. The flashbacks to 1966 — Vietnam's actual "Operation Abilene," featuring Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment — are too brief and harried to establish anything but the chaos of the day in question.
Despite the trauma of the men involved, and the cruelty of the bureaucracy which strategically failed to honor an act of uncommon courage — "The dirty little secret is that the medals go to the officers," Stan's character is advised at one point — Full Measure's project is to sentimentalize. It's got more American flags per minute than any film in recent memory. One pivotal scene is literally staged in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
It's a little much, in other words. The patriotic celebration of the heroism of individual soldiers is hard to disentangle from the patriotic celebration of war itself. And while the heroism of individual soldiers can and should be celebrated, the Vietnam War — which the vast majority of Americans regard as fundamentally wrong and immoral — is never questioned or condemned.
Stan is a convincing DOD climber, and while his gradual transformation from perturbed company man to conscientious advocate for veterans is a familiar arc, it's a central plot line that accommodates the large, high-profile ensemble.
It will come as no surprise that the culmination of the film is the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor, only three of which have ever been awarded to enlisted airmen. The film argues that these medals are crucially important, that they allow vets and their families to come together, to share their stories. And while the tearful rah-rah stuff was too on-the-nose for this reviewer, the film certainly pleads its case.