Sentiment and cynicism wrestle each other into submission in the Medal of Honor story, “The Last Full Measure.” In writer-director Todd Robinson’s “too much is never enough” hands, sentiment wins the day. And then it does a victory lap and spikes the ball in the end zone for good measure, all but spoiling the impact of his movie with anticlimaxes.
Robinson, better known as a producer, rounded up a star-studded cast of award winners for a script that gives every single one of them grace notes, a veritable master class presented by William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Plummer, Ed Harris, John Savage and in his final film, the late Peter Fonda.
Those acting grace notes almost rescue a generally graceless and lumbering combat/post-combat drama.
Most of them played aged veterans of the early days of the Vietnam War, survivors hellbent on seeing to it that an Air Force Pararescue medic who served with them but a single day, and who saved many of their lives, be given the Medal of Honor over three decades after his death.
Sebastian Stan plays a D.C. “government lawyer about to be unemployed” when we meet him. Scott Huffman works for the Air Force, and the Secretary of the Air Force (Linus Roache) has just announced his resignation. It’s 1999 (NOT “an election year,” as several characters say in the script) and Huffman is given one last thankless task by his career-public-servant boss (Bradley Whitford, poster boy for “cynicism on the screen”).
He’s got to review this long-dormant case of a recognized war hero, William Pitsenbarger. He was decorated with the Air Force Cross, but those who served with him in that firefight in 1966 insist that was “downgraded” from the honor they think he deserved.
“Take a few days, go hear some war stories,” kick the process down the road for the next person who has Huffman’s job is the thinking.
But not everybody he talks with is as compassionately insistent as his Air Force Pararescue comrade (Hurt) or as touching as the late airman’s parents (Plummer and Diane Ladd). The vets are not necessarily helpful.
One (Jackson) tosses his tape recorder away the moment he’s tracked down. Another, a school bus driver (Harris), stages their meeting at a gun range where he works off lingering aggression by emptying the mag on an M-16.
“It was one day — decades ago…”
And then there’s the loner in the hills (Fonda), married to his nurse (Amy Madigan), a paranoid PTSD patient who keeps watch and hunts at night and sleeps by day, because that’s what Vietnam did to him, “SIR.”
“I haven’t slept in the dark in 32 years, SIR!”
Huffman is the cynic who fumes over “today’s adventure in post-traumatic exorcism,” but who learns — from their stories, related in combat flashbacks — the meaning of “sacrifice” and “valor.”
His experience of Vietnam is that of a 30ish career public servant, married (Alison Sudol plays his wife), with a son and a baby on the way. He’s seen the movies, in other words. He uses “Apocalypse Now” references, seeing one vet as a “Kurtzian burnout.”
Those flashbacks show us why. They are chaotic, gory and harrowing. It was an ambush and a near-massacre.
British actor Jeremy Irvine plays the version of Pitsenbarger that his brothers-in-arms remember — a guy who dropped out of a chopper into a firefight, refused to leave until the wounded were all out ahead of him and with all the explosions and bullets whizzing by him, never flinched or ducked.
I started my movie reviewing career at the height of what the late critic Roger Ebert labeled the “This time we WIN” Vietnam War movie era, and there are hallmarks of revisionist movies like “Hamburger Hill” and others tossed in here, for good effect.
Jackson’s former Lt. Takoda tells a story of returning home to a rough bar where “dogs and ‘baby-killers'” weren’t allowed.
Paperwork is lost because “This IS the government, after all.” Hints of a conspiracy are dredged up, and politicians play political games with the legislation necessary to confer this medal before the dead soldier’s parents die of cancer and anything else that gets you in old age.
That’s the “cynicism” that the movie traffics in, a form of pandering to the aged, conservative veterans who are the film’s target audience.
In scripting this, writer-director Robinson shows why his producing career (Ridley Scott’s “White Squall”) is more storied than his directing one (“Phantom”). The interviews don’t generally advance the case for the “MOH” (Medal of Honor) or the story. The film gets sidetracked, repeatedly, and when it finally reaches its climax, goes on and on and one after it, manipulatively working overtime to wring tears out of the viewer.
There’s little sense of forward motion to any of this.
And then John Savage shows up, and gives the picture a final grace note to complement those provided by Hurt, Plummer, Harris, Jackson and Fonda.
It’s a crying shame Robinson didn’t have the instincts to wrap the picture up more quickly after that. Because aside from Savage, the highly-fictionalized third act of this “inspired by the true story” is a mess more concerned with agenda than good storytelling.
MPAA Rating: R for war violence, and language
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Irvine, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, Amy Madigan, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Bradley Whitford, Linus Roache, John Savage and Peter Fonda
Credits: Written and directed by Todd Robinson. A Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:50