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A new film about the Vietnam War reminds us that even though we can’t change the past, sometimes it can change us.
The Last Full Measure is based on the true story of William H. Pitsenbarger, an Air Force pararescueman in the Vietnam War who died saving soldiers he didn’t know during Operation Abilene, one of the war’s bloodiest engagements. The soldiers he saved spent 30 years asking the government to award Pitsenbarger the Medal of Honor—the highest U.S. military decoration. The veterans believed Pitsenbarger had been denied the Medal of Honor out of either bureaucratic incompetence or snobbery, since Pitsenbarger was an enlisted man and not an officer.
Sebastian Stan, most famous for playing Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier in the Avengers franchise, plays Scott Huffman, an ambitious and somewhat unlikable Pentagon staffer whose boss tasks him with reviewing the Pitsenbarger file to placate the insistent vets. Huffman feels the job is beneath him but reluctantly begins putting the review together. The movie proceeds through a series of interviews with the veterans paired with flashbacks to the action in Vietnam.
A couple of scenes in The Last Full Measure feel contrived, but the movie features an all-star cast of actors from Hollywood’s yesteryear. Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, and Samuel L. Jackson give particularly moving performances as men Pitsenbarger touched in various ways. I wept openly more than once during the film.
The Last Full Measure is rated R for war violence and repeated bad language, and some of the brokenness the war’s survivors experience is hard to watch. But there’s a story of redemption to be found in the ugliness of war and politics. The film reminds us “justice delayed is justice denied,” and we see that acknowledging the valor and virtue of the past can change the hearts and lives of those living in the present. Christians will even catch glimpses of Christ in the story of Pitsenbarger, a man who sacrificed himself to save others.
More and more, Americans look back on our country’s past with shame and judgment. But The Last Full Measure reminds viewers that in the midst of this world’s evil, goodness still shines from time to time. When it does, we should do our best to acknowledge it and provide hope for others.