There hasn’t been a serious Vietnam war film since Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers (2002). Post 9/11, Hollywood discovered a new perception of geopolitical threat and a new cause for triumphalism or guilt. So it is a surprise that Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (available on Netflix at the time of writing) should be released immediately after another Vietnam movie, though both are about the war as memory rather than as contemporary experience.
The Last Full Measure (available on streaming platforms) is a conventional, patriotic endeavour, which is to say that it’s unconventional, since few Vietnam movies (bar 1968’s The Green Berets, which starred John Wayne) have been patriotic.
Its title is taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (the “honoured dead” who “gave the last full measure of devotion”) and it tells the story of William H. Pitsenbarger, an Air Force rescue squadron parachutist who volunteers to replace the wounded medic of a First infantry Division platoon during the battle of Xa Cam My in April 1966. Thirty-three years later, under pressure from those whose lives Pitsenbarger saved, Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan, below), an ambitious Pentagon staffer seeking promotion, is tricked by a cynical colleague into undertaking a seemingly thankless, dead-end assignment: to establish whether Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross should be upgraded to a Congressional Medal of Honor (which has rarely been awarded to an airman).
The director deserves his own medal for getting the film made after it languished in development for almost two decades
Writer-director Todd Robinson deserves his own medal for getting the film made after it languished in development hell for almost two decades, seeing various producers and investors come and go — no fewer than 51 producer credits are listed on imdb.com. He gives us a lesson in why medals matter, over-assisted by Philip Klein’s tear-jerking score, which is laden with mournful trumpets. It is because they allow surviving veterans to tell stories and heal their psychological wounds. There is an element of Spotlight in the storytelling — an entirely fictional cover-up theme that is rather too neatly resolved when Huffman risks his career by going public about it on television. He is able to give closure to Pitsenbarger’s parents, played by Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd, and he ends up warming the hearts of his wife and young son. As character arcs go, it’s not especially compelling.
Each of those infantrymen rescued by Pitsenbarger (Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, Peter Fonda in his final role, and John Savage) is given a nub of guilt to expiate: one was over-eager and a danger to his comrades, another failed to deliver the airman’s last letter to his sweetheart, and another brought down friendly fire on his comrades by radioing the wrong map coordinates to an artillery unit (a bogus modern narrative that did not apply here, by the way). As the Commanding Officer for the military operation, now a US senator, puts it: “Usually we are judged by what we do. But what we don’t do is what haunts us.”
John Savage played the double amputee character in The Deer Hunter and his character here is described as “Kurtzian” — a reference to Marlon Brando’s megalomaniac, lost-in-the-jungle character in Apocalypse Now — except he isn’t: he’s benign and now operates a pilgrimage site for veterans on the site of the fatal engagement. Savage and Harris give the best performances in the film and Savage gets to explain the moral: some of us are destined to be heroes, others are destined to be witnesses, and both roles are honourable.
As a piece of filmmaking, The Last Full Measure pales alongside a masterpiece of construction and tonal empathy such as The Deer Hunter (1978), which, unusually, was shown in a primetime BBC1 slot during lockdown. Watching it after so many years, what struck me was how well the agony of the characters was sublimated, and how the director, Michael Cimino, devised such masterly transitions from one scene to the next.
The Cavatina theme by Stanley Myers, which was subsequently played on the radio so often that it became an irritant, is used only sparingly in the film: for the opening credits, for a second time 40 or so minutes in, when Michael (Robert De Niro) retreats to his room and slides down the wall, for a third time when he and Linda (Meryl Streep) get together, and finally for the closing credits. It is never overdone.
Otherwise, there is little music. The Russian chorus from the wedding service scene is reprised twice for the “spiritual” hunting scenes in the mountains, there are a couple of short pieces of guitar music in keeping with the style but not the melody of Cavatina, and there is a touching moment in the bar when owner John (George Dzundza) sits down and plays Chopin’s Nocturne No 6 in G Minor before a sudden disruptive cut to a skirmish in a Vietnamese village. That is a superb transition. No need for tedious scenes in which Michael is inducted into military life or sent to the battlefield.
I still find The Deer Hunter the most affecting of Vietnam movies
And, of course, there is the a cappella rendition of “God Bless America” that ends with the final frames of the film and the words “home sweet home”. John hums it all the way through as he stands at the stove, Steven (Savage) looks awkward at first, Linda and Michael exchange glances (his is soulful, while hers is tentative and followed by a downwards look before the camera cuts back to him).
Linda starts to sing the lyrics and they all join in and sing it through the second time. Some see this scene as ironic and anti-war, while others see it as right-wing, patriotic sentiment. Surely its truth lies mysteriously somewhere in between.
I still find The Deer Hunter the most affecting of Vietnam movies.
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