The Last Full Measure Parent Guide
A film with inspiring stories of courage, heroism, and resilience that compensate for a flawed narrative framework.
Parent Movie Review
William H Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine) was a pararescueman with the US Air Force in the Vietnam War, tasked with rescuing downed pilots and providing medical treatment to troops on the front lines. On April 11, 1966, two helicopters were sent to retrieve US casualties trapped at Xa Cam My, where they had been ambushed and were under heavy fire. Noting that the unit’s medic was wounded, Pitsenbarger insisted that he be lowered to the ground to provide immediate first aid and ensure that those who needed to be evacuated were properly secured. Before the area grew too dangerous for the choppers, the young airman sent nine men to safety, only to die under enemy fire. His valor was recognized with an Air Force Cross in 1966, but the men who witnessed his courage insisted that his sacrifice deserved a Medal of Honor. It was to be a thirty year fight.
Pitsenbarger’s real life actions are the inspiring heart of The Last Full Measure and provide enough uplift to compensate for a narrative framework that is far less satisfying. This story is centered around Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), a rising civilian star at the Pentagon, known for his ability to get things done, ruthlessly, if necessary. When he’s assigned to review a posthumous Medal of Honor application, he grudgingly decides to do the minimum: review the file, conduct a few interviews, tick the boxes and get back to the work that really matters. But once he dives into the lives of the men who fought in Xa Cam My, his perspective shifts.
My dissatisfaction with the structure of the movie isn’t with the narrative device itself. There’s nothing wrong with telling a historical story through an investigation, interviews, and flashbacks. The problem here is that director Todd Robinson has created a historically non-existent political battle that obstructs Pitsenbarger’s military award. Does Robinson think Huffman needs a modern antagonist to fight? Frankly, there’s enough tension in the film as Huffman meets the surviving vets and becomes aware of their burdens – their pain, guilt, trauma, grief, and need to see their rescuer properly acknowledged. That’s where the heart of the movie really is, with the heroism of the young airman and the gritty endurance of the battle-scarred men he saved. Anything else just feels like a distraction.
The film also has a few other flaws. The dialogue often feels canned and sometimes trite. There is a particularly painful scene where Hoffman indulges in some clumsy amateur psychology that will make some viewers wince. Parents will also be unhappy with the three dozen profanities, although they aren’t unexpected given the context. Also not surprising in context is the battlefield violence, some of which can be disturbing. However, violence is not inappropriate in a war movie and it is neither gratuitous nor glamorized.
Despite the production’s flaws, the true story of Pitsenbarger’s selfless heroism is enough to inspire those who see the film. In a world grown increasingly cynical, where trust in institutions is slipping, and people are increasingly isolated within their own social media bubbles, few things are more heartening than knowing a young man was willing to sacrifice himself to save the lives of strangers. Perhaps watching Pitsenbarger give the “last full measure of devotion” for his countrymen might inspire the rest of us to at least give our fellow citizens the basic measure of civility, respect, and empathy.Directed by Todd Robinson. Starring Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, and Samuel L. Jackson. Running time: 110 minutes. Theatrical release January 24, 2020. Updated January 24, 2020
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The Last Full Measure
Rating & Content Info
Why is The Last Full Measure rated R? The Last Full Measure is rated R by the MPAA for war violence, and language
Violence: There are frequent scenes of battlefield violence including explosions that throw people in the air, people being shot and falling out of trees, and men being shot. Wounded men are shown screaming. There are frequent scenes of men with bloody wounds and there are medical scenes involving treatments of these injuries. One scene briefly shows a dead man’s bloody entrails. Wounded men are dragged through the jungle. A man is shot in the head on camera. A man is shown washing his friend’s dead body, and putting a bandage over the bullet hole in his forehead. A man shows bullet scars on his back. A man talks about “destroying” a club and leaving blood and teeth on the floor. There is mention of possible suicide by putting a gun in one’s mouth. A man fires a gun into the air. A man breaks the neck of a rabbit he’s shot. A man vomits after killing an enemy in combat. Men fire guns at a shooting range. A man says that another man kills things to relieve stress. Wounded men are shot.
Sexual Content: A married couple kisses and embraces on a few occasions.
Profanity: There are over three dozen swear words in the movie, including eight sexual expletives, a handful of abbreviations including a sexual expletive, 14 scatological terms, and 16 terms of deity. There is also a smattering of anatomical terms and some crude language.
Alcohol / Drug Use: A secondary character is shown smoking cigarettes. There is some minor social drinking. A medic injects wounded men with painkillers.
Page last updated January 24, 2020
The Last Full Measure Parents' Guide
How historically accurate is the movie?
History vs Hollywood: The Last Full Measure
Airman William Pitsenbarger wasn’t the only casualty of Operation Abilene to receive a Medal of Honor. Sgt James W “Jim” Robinson was also posthumously recognized for his heroics in preserving the lives of his men. For more information about the Congressional Medal of Honor, check out The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
A moment by moment description of the battle of Xa Cam My can be found here:
The Washington Post: On the Perimeter of Hell
Although not all Vietnam vets suffered lifelong trauma, many did. Are you aware of the after-effects of the war on the many men (and women) who served there?
American Foreign Relations: The Vietnam War and Its Impact – American Veterans
Smithsonian.com: Over a Quarter-Million Vietnam War Veterans Still Have PTSD
The New York Times: Combat Stress Among Veterans Is Found to Persist Since Vietnam
Loved this movie? Try these books…
Charlie Company’s doomed participation in Operation Abilene is described in detail in George C Wilson’s carefully researched book, Mud Soldiers.
Journalist Philip Caputo recorded his first person experience as a marine in Vietnam in A Rumor of War. Michael Herr, a journalist on the front lines in Vietnam, published his account in Dispatches.
For a doctor’s perspective on the war, you can turn to Ronald J Glasser’s 365 Days. Stationed in Japan, Glasser treated injured men who were evacuated to the military hospital where he treated their wounds and heard their stories. Situated somewhat closer to the front was Army nurse Lynda Van Devanter. Working with Christopher Morgan, DeVanter shares her experiences with wounded troops in Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam.
If you’re looking for a concise history of the entire confusing conflict, check out George Herring’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975. In They Marched Into Sunlight, author David Maraniss combines experiences of soldiers, anti-war activists, and politicians to give a broad perspective on the conflict. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and Geoffrey C Ward have published interviews with subjects from their miniseries in The Vietnam War.
Have you ever wondered how the North Vietnamese troops saw their experiences in the war? Try reading Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. Duong Thu Huong, a disillusioned North Vietnamese soldier, shared his experiences and loss of faith in his national Communist ideology in Novel Without a Name.
Related home video titles:
During World War II, a young conscientious objector refuses to fire a gun. Choosing to become a medic instead, young Desmond T Doss struggles to save his fellow servicemen in the bloody battle for Okinawa. His story is told in Hacksaw Ridge.
While Pitsenbarger and other young men were dying in the jungles of Vietnam, the politicians in Washington were becoming aware that the war was unwinnable – but they kept on sending men to die. When years of papers demonstrating this are leaked to The Washington Post, owner Katharine Graham has to decide if she’s going to publish what we now call the Pentagon Papers. Find out what she does in The Post.