Reviewed by: Shawna Ellis
The true story of Vietnam War hero William H. Pitsenbarger, a U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen who personally saved over 60 men during a rescue mission on April 11, 1966
Sacrificing one’s life to save the lives of strangers
Importance of valor / courage / bravery / self-sacrifice
The duty of justly honoring the heroism and self-sacrifice of the fallen
Pain of losing one’s only child
Medal of Honor
“Justice delayed is justice denied.”
What is JUSTICE? What does the Bible say about it? Answer
What is the Biblical perspective on war? Answer
War in the Bible
Sebastian Stan … Scott Huffman
Jeremy Irvine … Airman William Hart Pitsenbarger Jr. (“Pits”), a U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen
Christopher Plummer … William Franklin “Frank” Pitsenbarger—William’s father
Diane Ladd … Alice Pitsenbarger—William’s stepmother
Ed Harris … Ray Mott
Zach Roerig … Young Ray Mott
William Hurt … Tully (Tulley)
Ethan Russell … Young Tulley
Samuel L. Jackson … Takoda
Ser'Darius Blain … Young Takoda
Peter Fonda … Jimmy Burr
James Jagger … Young Jimmy Burr
Robert Pine … Meredith Huffman
John Savage … Kepper
Bradley Whitford … Carlton Stanton
Alison Sudol … Tara Huffman
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See all »
“The ultimate sacrifice deserves the highest honor.”
How many times have you thought back to a moment in your past and wished that you could have done something differently? What if your actions (or your inaction) had seriously affected the lives of others? This film examines the repercussions of the choices made on one fateful day in the Vietnam War and how lives can be forever changed in mere moments.
“Usually we’re judged by what we do. But it’s what we don’t do that haunts us.” This is spoken by one of the characters in “The Last Full Measure,” a movie based on the real life effort to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to an Airman who proved his valor in the Battle of Xa Cam My in Vietnam in April of 1966. We see this played out through the lives of multiple Army Soldiers and a fellow Airman as they give testimony of Pitsenbarger’s heroism in the devastating firefight which cost him his life.
“The Last Full Measure” tells the story of William H. Pitsenbarger, a young Airman fully committed to his duty as an Air Force Pararescue Jumper. There is no doubt that Pitsenbarger was a hero, but this film is not solely about his actions that day. It is really an examination of the effects of war on those who have survived, and of how even one life given selflessly can forever alter the lives of many. Most war movies tell the story of the battle itself, but this war movie tells the stories of the human lives which were altered by having been there.
My father is a Vietnam veteran, having served in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. After many years of scarcely talking about his time there, he now meets annually with hundreds of others from the Blackhorse Regiment. These men come together each year to recount the same stories, the same losses, the same victories, and to grieve those who were lost in the war and those among them who have died since. They look through photos of their much-younger selves standing next to men who never aged beyond the year those pictures were taken. There is a bond between these men whose lives and backgrounds are otherwise so varied. They were there, they did their part in the mud, the heat, and the terror of that place, and they have never forgotten.
Their tours of duty there were such a small fraction of time in their lives, but there is no denying that the war changed them. The telling and retelling of their experiences in Vietnam seems to bring closure and healing. I think of these men when a character in the film is asked by a grandchild, “Does it still hurt, Grandpa?” He replies, “Only on the inside, baby.” Some men who served in Vietnam do have lingering physical effects from injuries sustained there or from exposure to toxins like Agent Orange. But countless others have wounds that don’t show on the outside. It is good to see this acknowledged.
Whenever I view a film depicting the Vietnam War, I think of my Dad and those men I have met at the reunions, and I scrutinize it with great care. Does the film honor or demean their sacrifice? Is it fanciful and fake, or does it accurately portray what happened in those jungles? I was not there, so I can’t know. But I can sense when a film makes an attempt at accuracy and realism and is not just something dreamed up by the imaginations of Hollywood.
I feel that “The Last Full Measure” does honor the service of these men. The battle scenes seem like a realistic depiction of an imbalanced and desperate firefight… soldiers doing what they have to do to survive. It is confusing and scary, chaotic and horrific. But more than this, I think that this film particularly tries to portray the effects of war on the minds and emotions of those who were there. Battle scenes in a movie may be technically accurate, but the real story is a different battle that is unseen. Those who lived through such events not only had to survive the initial conflict but they have had to fight an internal battle every day since. This is clearly portrayed in the movie as the Soldiers being interviewed are suffering with varying degrees of trauma and survivor’s guilt from their experiences and their roles in the battle.
Some might find these depictions of veterans to be stereotypes, but I think that the filmmakers were attempting to show that the ramifications of surviving don’t end when the guns and mortars stop firing, but can last a lifetime and can vary in severity. Each man has been clearly affected by what happened at Xa Cam My and the degrees to which this manifests are unflinchingly portrayed but not unrealistic. As each one recounts his role in the firefight, we see how a single moment in time can create heavy loads that men still carry decades later.
Thankfully, we also see compassion for these troubled veterans. Each actor in these roles is proficient and believable. There are several big name stars in this film and all seem to take their characters seriously.
Unfortunately, although it is based on a compelling true story, this movie is guilty of some fictionalization. Some are pragmatic changes, such as using a Huey helicopter for the air evacuation instead of a Huskie, because a Huskie would be harder to procure for filming. Others changes deviate wildly from the true story, such as combining characters, completely creating a lead protagonist, and adding elements of political tension and intrigue which did not exist.
But one thing remains very clear and unchanged despite these alterations from the true story… Pitsenbarger was a hero and his actions that day were deserving of recognition. Although he is given relatively little actual screentime, Jeremy Irvine shines as the young Airman as he undertakes his mission to save as many lives as he could. The Pararescue motto is “that others may live,” and Pitsenbarger exemplified this. Irvine’s portrayal of Pitsenbarger shows a man confident in his calling and willing to give his life for others without hesitation.
Somewhat less compelling as a character is the lead actor Sebastian Stan as the fictional Department of Defense worker Scott Huffman. I felt that he was merely a convenient device for listening to the stories and testimony of the parents, Airman and Soldiers. Although this may have been necessary, his character and motivations are a weak point in the film for me.
In contrast to this, the aged parents of Pitsenbarger are beautifully played by Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd. Some reviewers have said that they were overly sentimental and too emotional about the loss of their son decades before, but I would say that they captured the essence of a grieving couple missing their only child. At one point, Mr. Pitsenbarger says, “Dying isn’t harder than losing a child, I promise you.” They loved their son, and the desire to see him awarded the Medal of Honor did not seem to be motivated by excessive pride but because it would show that his life was given for a purpose and not wasted.
Although the movie does honor veterans and highlights the courage of a true hero, there are some concerns. “The Last Full Measure” is rated R for war violence and language. This rating is definitely warranted. War scenes are realistic, very graphic and could be difficult for those who have been in such situations. Flashbacks to the same battle occur with each interview and are shown from different perspectives. Offensive language is vulgar and prevalent.
Violence is heavy, with repeated scenes depicting a brutal and imbalanced firefight between Charlie Company and the Viet Cong. There are explosions, gunshot wounds, blood, and realistically portrayed scenes of agony and death. However, these intense and difficult scenes are relatively infrequent (presented as flashbacks) and are not the majority of screentime. In the modern day scenes, an emotionally disturbed character threatens someone with a gun. A man wrings a rabbit’s neck. Stories are shared about injustices done to returning soldiers and retaliation for such.
Foul language is very heavy. Having been around many veterans, I know that language of this sort is common. However, that does not lessen the negative impact of hearing it repeated over and over again. There are many multiple uses of the F-word, including in the presence of a young child who responds that his father owes him a quarter for cursing. “FNG” which is short for “F-ing New Guy” is used 9 times. God’s name is taken in vain many times, often coupled with damn. Jesus and Christ are used several times as expletives. Sh*t is used about 15 times, as is hell. Other vulgarities and profanities are used very freely as well.
No sexuality or nudity is present. A man urinates in a restroom while another speaks to him from the next urinal. A character briefly shows his bare back covered with scars.
Other: Characters smoke. A soldier vomits. Medical procedures are shown in the field, including efforts to stop bleeding and shots of pain reliever. Men cry openly with shame and regret. A man prays before a stone idol but then admits he is not really praying. This character also seems to practice various forms of spiritualism and ceremonies. Viet Cong soldiers are referred to as “dinks” and “gooks” and a new Soldier callously looks forward to his first kill.
Director and screenwriter Todd Robinson was clearly moved by the true story of Pitsenbarger, and I think he handled this film well. Although laden with profanity and not perfect, it is a valiant attempt to honor not just one man but all those who served.
Yet, for whatever reason, the movie did very poorly at the box office, earning only 3 million dollars and having had a budget of 20 million. It did not play within a hundred miles of my home, and in the venues in which it did show it was only available for a short time. I have to wonder why that is. Are people really so jaded these days that a moving story about a true hero does not seem worth their time and money? In the days of the “anti-hero” being celebrated and applauded, it could be that seeing true courage and sacrifice portrayed realistically is too much for some people to take, because it shows how far removed they are from being willing to do the same. It’s a shame that more people will not learn about Pitsenbarger and his actions to save so many that day. He gave up everything for men he didn’t even know, and did so without hesitation.
Although he could have left, Airman Pitsenbarger came down to be amongst the dying and desperate men of Charlie Company. He literally descended into the chaos of that battle with one goal… that others may live. He even removed his own flak vest to lay it across the chest of an injured man. In one scene, a wounded soldier asks Pitsenbarger, “Why are you here?” Pitsenbarger replies, “Because you are.” This resounded within me. Am I worth saving? Why would anyone give up their own life to save me? Then I remembered that Someone already has.
Christ came to us because we needed Him desperately. He didn’t have to do so, but He chose to, so that others may live. In 1 Peter 3:18 we read,
Just as the men who had been saved by Pitsenbarger wanted his actions to be acknowledged and honored, those who trust in Jesus and have been saved by Him are thankful for this and want to see His name lifted up. It is not something that can be just set aside and forgotten, even if it happened decades ago. We should think about it every day, remembering our lost and desperate condition and how Jesus descended down into the chaos of this world to save us.
Many of those who have been through the pain and horror of war are troubled by what they have seen and done. Some feel a sense of shame for what they did or did not do, have lasting regrets, a bitter spirit, or even live in fear as they replay those days again and again in their minds and their dreams. Even after decades have passed, peace may be difficult to find. I pray that all who suffer with these burdens will turn to the only One who can give lasting and true peace.
Consider the words inspired by God and penned by Paul, a man who had suffered terribly. Paul had come through incredible hardships and troubles which he recounts briefly in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27. Some of the things he lists would be familiar to anyone who has served in wartime… pain, wounds, continually in deadly danger, constantly moving from place to place, labor, toil, hunger, fatigue, and more. He was also a man who had regrets about his past, who had once even been on the “wrong side” and had been a persecutor of believers. Yet Paul says in Romans 8:18,
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.”
There is something far greater than the sufferings of this world, greater even than the pain of war. There is the potential for peace with God and being a partaker in His glory forever. No matter what you have done and no matter how dreadfully you have suffered, there is something far better in store for those who place their faith and trust in Christ.
Are you good enough to get to Heaven? Answer
How good is good enough? Answer
Will all mankind eventually be saved? Answer
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.