Monday, July 27, 2020

The Last Full Measure Employs Half-Measures When It Comes To Storytelling

The Last Full Measure may become my go-to example of a movie that's focused on the wrong character. Much like Million Dollar Arm or The Red Sea Diving Resort, The Last Full Measure has compelling side characters who should be the lead characters of their stories. Instead, Measure, like Arm and Resort, shines a spotlight on a generic white dude protagonist. Such a character will only prove interesting to studio executives who spend nights fretting about focus group responses. In the process, Measure undercuts its own intended message of raising awareness for veterans that have been forgotten.

Written and directed by Todd Robinson, Measure begins with Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), a jaded Pentagon staffer just looking to climb up the social ladder at his job. He's tasked with reviewing a Medal of Honor request for a deceased soldier named William H. Pitsenbarger (Jeremy Irvine). Pitsenbarger was an Air Force soldier who went down into a Vietnam War battle zone and saved sixty lives. Huffman discovers this story as he interviews an assortment of soldiers, including Takoda (Samuel L. Jackson) and Burr (Peter Fonda). They were all there that fateful day Pitsenbarger laid down his life to help others. Unfortunately, Huffman also discovers a greater conspiracy at play that's been keeping Pitsenbarger from being recognized for decades now. Such a conspiracy could threaten to upend Huffman's career. Along his journey, though, Huffman may or may not discover that there are more important things than just a 9-to-5 job.

As you can tell by the plot summary, Hoffman's storyline is total fluff. Robinson's writing mechanically establishes Huffman as another slimy individual in Washington D.C. without an ounce of a personality to his name. Throughout Measure, Huffman's basically just around to hop from one veteran to the next and stand there while the vets tell him stories. The soldiers he interviews are rife with much more memorable personalities. All of them are united by a sense of regret over the past, but Robinson smartly manifests that in distinctly different ways across each person. Unfortunately, they're not the people we spend the majority of Measure with.

Huffman's the guy we're stuck with for most of Measure's runtime and he's just not a dramatically compelling character to be around. It doesn't help that Huffman feels so detached from the veteran characters. There isn't anything connecting him thematically to these individuals or even the overall plot of Measure. Huffman's like something that wandered in from another movie and somehow became the protagonist. Huffman isn't helped by the performance of Sebastian Stan. He's done good dramatic performances in films like I, Tonya and Destroyer. But without any semblance of a personality to latch onto, Stan spends much of Measure just staring off into space and looking vaguely worried. He goes through the motions of depicting Huffman's arc but there isn't much life in either his performance or the writing of the character.

Robinson's direction is similarly perfunctory as he resorts to a medium-shot/reverse-medium-shot style for nearly all of the many conversations that comprise The Last Full Measure. There isn't much visual imagination here even in the most basic terms. The only real visual flourish is Robinson's decision to give flashback sequences a blue tinge. Much of The Last Full Measure takes its cue from the work put in by Stan and Robinson. Rarely bad but also rarely interesting. A soldier that did unexpected acts of courage gets a war drama that's all about being paint-by-numbers.

Luckily, there's a star-studded cast here full of veteran performers who know how to deliver good work under any circumstances. If Samuel L. Jackson could resist sleepwalking through that RoboCop remake, you know he's able to bring some actual dramatic heft to Measure. The real standout of the cast is Christopher Plummer in a tiny role as Pitsenbarger's dad. A scene where this father wistfully reminisces about all the little things his son used to do ("The way he'd look for me in the stands when he ran to home plate...") is full of truly effective sorrow. Plummer, that legend, he brought his A-game even for this rudimentary project. A bunch of really gifted performers do fine work in The Last Full Measure. However, you can see them deliver far better performances in way way way better movies.

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