The story, inspired by harrowing real events, centers on the incredible heroics of William Pitsenbarger, an Air Force Pararescueman during the Vietnam War. During a perilous rescue operation, Pitsenbarger saved dozens of lives, at the ultimate cost of his own. Subsequent attempts to award him the Medal of Honor get kiboshed by the Pentagon, frustrating comrades who witnessed Pitsenbarger’s remarkable bravery.
Enter Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an ambitious young bureaucrat given the task of judging whether or not Pitsenbarger is worthy of the nation’s highest military honor. Huffman seeks out the men who were there that day, with most of them in varying degrees of mental anguish: Sgt. Tully (William Hurt) leads the lifelong crusade to shine a light on Pitsenbarger. Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson) responds with surliness, and indicates that more happened that day than what’s in the record. Peter Fonda’s Jimmy Burr struggles to filter what actually happened through his damaged psyche. This journey ultimately takes Huffman to Pitsenbarger’s parents (Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd), who have dedicated their lives to maintaining his legacy.
The latter scenes are when the movie is at its most effective. Plummer and Ladd blend a sort of permanent pleasantness with the marrow-deep pain of parents who’ve buried their child. Their presence puts a human face on the slight done to Pitsenbarger’s memory and gives Huffman’s quest a sense of urgency. The story loses much of its impact when it veers away from this angle.
Part of the reason for this lies in placing Huffman as the protagonist of the film. He’s an undercooked character, bland and passive. It could also be that Stan is too amiable and soft-spoken to play a cutthroat careerist. He also doesn’t get much help from a squandered Bradley Whitford, whose backstabbing functionary only exists to toss in a few West Wing riffs. Also wasted is Alison Sudol as Huffman’s clichéd wife, who occasionally gets called on to either supply her man with pep talks or beam with pride during crowd scenes.
All those weaknesses point to the strengths of Courage Under Fire. Denzel Washington plays the investigator role as a man possessed with molten fury, but also badly hobbled by his own tormented past. The story for Meg Ryan’s character bears a few superficial similarities to Pitsenbarger’s, except the only hinderance to her candidacy lies with her gender. Told in fractured style of Rashomon, Courage represents a snaking path to painful truth.
While much of Measure falls short, one thing elevates it: Pitsenbarger himself. His story is real, as are the people who persevered for decades to get it told. The Last Full Measure helps keep the memory of a hero alive, and that’s good news. Unfortunately, they can upgrade his medal, but they can’t upgrade the movie that depicts how it was earned. And that, dear readers, is the bad news.
110 min. R.