The Last Full Measure review – half-hearted salute to an American hero

<span>Photograph: Jackson Lee Davis/AP</span>
Photograph: Jackson Lee Davis/AP

Here’s a true story about a young soldier’s exceptional bravery and sacrifice made into pretty average war movie, insubstantial and TV-ish despite the appearance of some decorated Hollywood veterans.

William Pitsenbarger was a 21-year-old air force medic killed on the battlefield in Vietnam in 1966 while nursing wounded soldiers – he had refused to be evacuated by helicopter. Writer-director Todd Robinson focuses on the campaign to get Pitsenbarger posthumously awarded America’s highest military award, the medal of honor. It’s an earnest film made with the best of intentions, but will perhaps be remembered as the last role for Peter Fonda, who plays a Vietnam vet with PTSD.

Set mostly in the late 90s, it follows a flashy and ambitious Pentagon staffer, Scott Huffmann (Sebastian Stan), who is ordered to gather witness statements to Pitsenbarger’s heroism. The nod from top brass is not to push too hard for the medal, and Huffmann barely bothers to hide his boredom interviewing veterans. An air force buddy (William Hurt) remembers Pitsenbarger as an idealistic young man who wanted to make a difference. Samuel L Jackson is the officer whose men he rescued. Ed Harris and Fonda are soldiers he saved. These heavyweight actors, playing men still coming to terms with how their adult lives have been scarred by war, add emotional depth and dignity absent from the script. Jeremy Irvine is Pitsenbarger himself in battlefield flashbacks.

The clock is ticking to get the medal while Pitsenbarger’s elderly parents are still alive (moving performances from Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd). Of course, Huffmann the cynic wrestles with his conscience before deciding – to hell with his career! – to fight all-out for Pitsenbarger. It’s an emotional journey that feels contrived and not remotely believable, cheapening the movie. And pity poor Alison Sudol, who plays Huffmann’s pregnant wife in what might be the wife-iest role of the year so far: all that’s required of her character is to stroke her baby bump and gaze adoringly at her husband.

  • The Last Full Measure is on digital platforms from 1 June.