The stories of Medal of Honor recipients captivated me early in my teen years. Call me a nerd if you will, but my fascination had less to do with war or the politics of war and more to do with the individual acts of selfless valor I read about. What makes a man jump on a live grenade to save his buddies, or fly a helicopter “sideways” up a mountainside in hazardous weather to evacuate casualties, or walk headlong into enemy fire? Or, in the case of Airman William H. “Pits” Pitsenbarger, drop into a company of Army GIs to provide much-needed medical care, then refuse to be evacuated and choose to stay behind, even though doing so meant certain death?
For his actions, Bill Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine) was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross. 35 years later, it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. It’s this story—of the quest for the upgrade—that The Last Full Measure endeavors to tell.
But as it turns out, this film is only “based on a true story,” and a disclaimer at the end of the film suggests that while Pitsenbarger’s story is true, most other details and characters were dramatized and/or fictionalized—which left me wondering what the point of the film was.
Pitsenbarger’s bravery is beyond notable, and certainly worthy of the Medal of Honor. But we only encounter his story through a series of flashbacks, as the fictional Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan)—the workaholic DOD lawyer assigned to researching the medal upgrade request—interviews the Army “mud soldiers” whom Pits saved.
Huffman tackles the project first out of obligation, and later out of passion, pushing the upgrade through in the nick of time (Pitsenbarger’s father—Christopher Plummer—is dying). Along the way, he plays therapist to a number of the veterans he meets, most of whom are dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress, while also facing his own childhood demons and daddy issues.
Even the title feels off, choosing to echo the Gettysburg Address rather than paying homage, as it so easily could have, to Pitsenbarger’s unit—the Air Force Pararescuemen, whose creed ends with the line, “These things we do, that others may live.”
In a way, Pitsenbarger ends up playing second fiddle in his own story—and that to a character who never actually existed. Despite its star-studded cast—which also includes William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda (in his last screen appearance), and Bradley Whitford (who, fifteen years later, still can’t help but give off Josh Lyman vibes, and whose performance was responsible for the extra half star in my rating)—it’s a film that simply can’t measure up to the hero it seeks to honor.