At the beginning of our conversation about his new film, The Last Full Measure, director Todd Robinson shared with me a childhood memory which left an indelible mark. His fourth-grade teacher’s son had recently returned from the Vietnam War and was invited to meet the class.
“How many people did you kill?”
It was a question posed by Todd’s classmate. He says he remembers seeing a “10,000 foot-stare” fill the visitor’s eyes. A year later, the young vet took his own life.
“This is a systemic problem that we’re currently facing. You’ve probably heard the numbers, 22 [suicides] a day. It’s a real thing and it all has to do with the process of homecoming and how we reintegrate our warriors, our fighting men and women when they come back, and we’re not doing a great job of it. And so this movie speaks to a lot of those issues.”
When I was growing up, soldiers were referred to as having shell shock (post-traumatic stress was an unknown concept to us at the time), and we never discussed war atrocities. In 1998, the World War II film Saving Private Ryan brought the realism of war to life for the grandchildren of those soldiers. That same year, Tom Brokaw released The Greatest Generation, a volume of profiles of people who grew up during the Great Depression and endured World War II. I remember this year as being the first time the pain of my grandfather’s generation became real. The proliferation of post-traumatic stress diagnoses wouldn’t come until much later in the decades following the Vietnam War.
The Last Full Measure could do the same for a new generation.
Based on a true story, the film delves into the pursuit of justice to posthumously award the Congressional Medal of Honor to a young airman. William Pitsenbarger made the ultimate sacrifice while aiding wounded soldiers in the midst of a firefight in the jungles of Vietnam. Todd Robinson not only wants to honor the story of pararescueman “Pits,” but also tell the stories of those men who survived and came home to an alien environment.
Not every character in the film is based on one person but is a representation of many experiences. It offers the perspective of both soldiers and their families but focuses mainly through the eyes of Scott Huffman, the Pentagon staffer tasked with investigating and recording evidence for the award. Played by Sebastian Stan, an initially prickly Huffman is more focused on career advancement than justice, but soon changes when he hears their stories. The parents of Pitsenbarger, portrayed by Christopher Plummer and Diane Lane, fuel the burden of responsibility Huffman feels to complete his mission. Amy Madigan takes on the role of the wife of a particularly fragile veteran (Peter Fonda), fiercely protecting his physical and emotional safety as well as his reputation. Huffman’s own wife (Alison Sudol) serves as a lighthouse, consistently redirecting him when the path becomes rocky. Each character suffers setbacks and celebrates victories, and none are left unchanged by the end.
Todd tells me that the audiences who have viewed the film have a profound reaction. Usually, they sit in stunned silence as he begins the live question and answer session.
“It’s a highly emotional experience. Everybody sobs through the end of this movie, but it’s uplifting – it’s not a downer. And I think part of that is because it’s coming together so many years after [Pitsenbarger’s] loss.”
The story is told not through the hero’s perspective, but through those in his life who were impacted by his actions and his death. Much like the audiences who have attended screenings, many are not veterans. They include the family members who have to deal with a changed loved one, and many don’t know how.
The character of Takoda, as portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, faces a choice late one night when in the midst of emotional turmoil, he opens a drawer to reveal a handgun. The movie doesn’t shy away from the trauma of war, nor does it present the men as pitiable victims. Instead, it inspires action.
“When they come back, having had to sometimes do very difficult things, there’s nobody willing to talk to them. So when these guys return, and gals, it’s not enough to say ‘Thank you for your service’ and give up an airplane seat for them. We have to say to them, ‘What can I do to help? Can I listen? Is there something I can do for your family?’
This movie, even though it takes place almost 50 years ago, is a modern enough story that certainly it will, I hope, restart a conversation about the treatment of our Vietnam war men and women.”
Todd puts his words to action. He sits on the board of Save a Warrior, a nonprofit which is “committed to ending the staggering suicide rate plaguing our veterans, active-duty military, and first responders.” Todd tells me that men and women are invited to join a 5-day cohort of intensive experiences from rope courses to equine therapy and that participants “rediscover the brotherhood and sisterhood” they left behind when they returned from deployment.
“What we in Save a Warrior try to encourage them to do is be vulnerable. We do an exercise that’s called pre-trauma where we say ‘we want you to tell us in six minutes everything significant that’s ever happened to you from your birth to the moment that you enlisted and stop.’ And when they really lean in, it’s amazing what comes out of people in front of strangers. And it’s interesting because that’s sort of what the process of going to a movie is like. You go in not knowing what’s going to happen and you have this tacit agreement with a bunch of strangers who you sit with in the dark to have a common experience and that’s where it gets cut off with the soldiers. They stop there and they isolate instead of opening up and being vulnerable and telling their story. Because once they do, their hearts start to heal because they realize that people are never gonna hold them accountable for that which they could not control. They start to feel safe again and feel like they can rebuild their community of trusted loved ones.”
The delay of justice in Pitsenbarger’s story was an opportunity for greater things to develop.
“Had Pitsenbarger been awarded the medal when they put him up for it back in ’66, I don’t think we’d be talking about it today. The fact that it took these men 32 years to get him the medal and then me another 20 years to get the movie made, we’ve been able to reflect. And I just hope that when people leave the movie, maybe on some level they’re thinking about what they could do in terms of a random act of kindness because you’ll probably never know what the ultimate outcome is.”
The Last Full Measure opens Friday, January 24th. Check out the trailer below: