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Review: Compelling tale of heroism diluted to ho-hum Hollywood thriller ‘The Last Full Measure’

By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

William H. Pitsenbarger was a Vietnam War hero. In 1966, the 21-year-old Air Force pararescue jumper, or P.J. in military parlance, descended from a helicopter – a real-life deus ex machina – into the thick of a ground battle where dozens of U.S. Army soldiers were being slaughtered in an ambush.

Before Pits, as he was called, was himself killed in what was known as Operation Abilene, the emergency medical specialist saved the lives of several men, some of whom were ferried away by the same chopper that Pits waved off after his airborne crew urged him to get the heck out of there.

For his bravery and self-sacrifice, he was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, which, some 30 years later, was upgraded to a more prestigious Medal of Honor. Those are the facts that inspired the drama “The Last Full Measure,” which practically spells many of them out in the opening credit sequence and which stars the handsome British actor Jeremy Irvine as Pits in flashbacks.

The rest of the movie, opening in 1999 and told from the perspective of a fictional Defense Department lawyer (Sebastian Stan) who takes up the case of Pits’s medal upgrade, centers on the attorney’s interviews with the aging, and, in one case, PTSD-suffering, survivors of Operation Abilene.

The star-studded cast – featuring William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Ed Harris and John Savage, playing vets whose recollections become the basis for the new Medal of Honor petition – helps boost a tale that, on paper, sounds moving and inspirational.

In the process of which a high-level military conspiracy is uncovered. Say what now? You won’t find any published reports of such a conspiracy, which, along with Stan’s character, was apparently invented by filmmaker Todd Robinson.

The writer-director takes Pits’s true story – a story you’d like to see as a documentary if the emotional clips of real-life survivors of Operation Abilene over the closing credits are any indication – and turns it into a conventional Hollywood thriller.

As such, it is at once a weak and heavy-handed one, alternating between redundant battle scenes and unnecessarily repetitious conversations in which characters grapple with the why of Pits’s heroism. Why would he enlist? Why would his mother and father (Diane Ladd and Christopher Plummer) let him go in the first place?

Why would he put himself in harm’s way, then pick up a gun after he had tended to all the wounded, not to mention refuse to evacuate himself when he could? If you are still wondering by the end of the movie, the emblem of the Pararescue force spells it out for you: “That others may live.”

OK, that’s what makes him a hero. But heroism, however real, doesn’t, by definition, make “The Last Full Measure” a great movie. Juicing up a fine story, and then hammering away at its point, makes it one that doesn’t appear to trust its source material or audience. None of this information, including the conspiracy, is a spoiler.

It’s all in the trailer, which you should avoid if you’d rather not know additional details sidestepped here. “The Last Full Measure” has its poignant moments and boasts a wonderful (if at times histrionic) company of actors, but their message is drowned out in a telling that shouts to be heard when an indoor voice would suffice.

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