“These men faced life-or-death battles, with bombs going off and someone dropping next to them,” Diane Ladd, today age 84, told me in a phone interview from her home near Los Angeles. “I’ve met these veterans, sharing meals with them and hugging their necks. They told me this film captures the essence of what happened.”
In “The Last Full Measure,” which opens Friday in theaters, the award-winning actress plays the mother of William Pitsenbarger—an enlisted airman and pararescue jumper who volunteered to go into combat during the Vietnam War. On April 11, 1966, when a Huskie helicopter dropped him east of Saigon, 21-year-old Pitsenbarger found a scene much worse than expected.
“At the time, Operation Abilene was probably the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War,” said Robinson via phone. Known for his work as producer on Ridley Scott’s “White Squall,” the writer/director has spent 20 years crafting this story as a major motion picture. “Thirty-four Americans were killed in action, and others passed afterwards from their wounds.”
Young medic Pitsenbarger had a chance to escape the combat zone by helicopter but waved it off. He stayed, defending the Army’s 1st Infantry Division before making the ultimate sacrifice. Yet “The Last Full Measure” reveals a larger story. It’s a visceral account of war told in flashback scenes, a fast-paced legal/political thriller, and an emotional tribute to U.S. service members.
The mid-budget film has unexpected star power. Sebastian Stan, known as the “Winter Soldier” in a half-dozen Marvel films, portrays a Pentagon lawyer who is approached by Pitsenbarger’s brothers in arms during the mid-1990s. The soldiers include Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, William Hurt, and the late Peter Fonda, in his final role before his death last August.
With the advent of the internet, the comrades had reconnected and realized the man who saved them had never been given his due: the Medal of Honor. Pitsenbarger’s father Frank (Christopher Plummer) was terminally ill, cared for by his wife Alice (Ladd). It gave the veterans an urgency to press for the deceased hero to be honored, which would take an act of Congress.
“For me, it was a bucket list of hero actors to be able to work with all in the same picture,” said Robinson. “Sam Jackson is so professional and prepared, he never leaves the set. If you come on-set and start to gum up the works, he’ll let you know right away!”
This inspiring military biopic marks the first leading film role for Stan, who is currently filming buzzy superhero series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” “If you watch the way that social media rolls with Sebastian, he brings this huge following of young people who are fans of his from the Marvel universe,” said Robinson.
“It’s really exciting to me that, because he’s in it, a whole younger generation is going to become acquainted with this story of valor, sacrifice, and service greater than self.”
Finding Heroism In Unexpected Places
Known for seven decades of film and TV roles including in “Wild At Heart,” and as the mother of current star Laura Dern, Ladd has often seen projects face delays. “It takes a long time to produce a good, real-life film,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get the truth out there, when fiction seems to sell better. Todd had to work against all odds to get this movie made.”
Growing up in Mississippi, Ladd is all too familiar with the cost of war. “My classmates in school, farmboys who were just 17 years old, were drafted during the Korean War era,” she said. “A lot of them died fighting for America and what we believe in: truth, freedom, and our Constitution.”
Today, the realities of military family life have become less commonly known; veterans account for fewer than 8 percent of the U.S. population. Even with a complex script juggling multiple timelines, Robinson sought to keep themes of service and sacrifice at the forefront.
“These roles are all built on real people who I met along the way,” he said. “Early on, I interviewed one of the veterans and he kept calling me ‘sir.’ ‘You understand what I’m saying, sir?’ I finally stopped him and said, ‘You don’t have to call me “sir.” I’m just a hack screenwriter from Hollywood.’”
But the Vietnam veteran would not stop. The director realized that, at the time, it was intended as a kind of put-down. “He saw me as ‘the man’ in my realm, like the officer in charge,” said Robinson. “He wasn’t a big fan of officers because they had walked him into that ambush. Later, once he got to trust me, he told me he appreciated what I was doing on behalf of all of them.”
While at times reflective, the film also has a keen sense of how modern politics works. Walk-and-talk scenes in Washington, D.C. follow Stan and colleagues’ witty banter. With Bradley Whitford from “The West Wing” playing a self-seeking bureaucrat, Robinson admits nods to the Aaron Sorkin show are intentional. Yet even among civilian paper-pushers, he found heroism.
“I spent a lot of time with people in the Pentagon who worked very hard to make this medal happen,” said Robinson. “Though you’d never guess it from the news briefs we see so often, they are very clever people who say funny things. I always have a pad with me to write down things that may be useful in a script. Call me a world-class plagiarist.”
‘War Is Hell, Man’
The film’s genesis goes back to 1999. Robinson attended a graduation ceremony for a class of pararescue jumpers Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Frank Pitsenbarger spoke in his commencement about the loss of his son—emotions still fresh after 33 years.
In the film, the war hero’s on-screen mother conveys the weight of that grief. After speaking with Ladd about her relevant tragedy, the director actually rewrote her character’s scenes.
“To portray Alice Pitsenbarger was beautiful, and we have in common having to bury a child,” said Ladd. “My firstborn daughter tragically died when she was not yet two years old. We all have personal experiences that we draw on, and some of them are pretty harsh.”
Filming in Thailand, cast and crew recreated harsh combat in Vietnam with the same climate, overgrown forests, insect infestations, and even monsoon flooding. Realistic war scenes resulted in the film garnering an R rating. Still, the director said reception in preview screenings has been enthusiastic even from families with children ages 12 and up.
“War is hell, man,” said Robinson. “The violence in this film is never gratuitous or overdone. It was deeply important to me and my fellow filmmakers that we recreate as honestly as we could the conditions of that battle. We needed our audience to understand what these veterans went through and what the stakes are when you go to war.”
Currently on Hallmark’s “Chesapeake Shores,” Ladd addresses concerns about the rating. “Like many Hallmark viewers, I don’t like violence on screen—unless it paints a picture that teaches you,” she said. “When a surgeon operates on your body, it’s a form of violence that helps you. People should not miss this film, because they need to see what these men fought for.”
Since 2016 Robinson has served as a board member for Save A Warrior, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping veterans heal from post-traumatic stress and preventing suicide. The film depicts multiple veterans coping with PTSD in various ways. In one scene late in the evening, Jackson’s character wakes up at home, opens a drawer, and handles a gun.
“You have to realize that suicide is a pathway that’s always very close to people who have had wartime trauma, and often trauma that precedes their military service,” he said. “Getting to know so many veterans who are going through really difficult situations informed this script.”
Working with his silver-screen idols, Robinson recalls lighter moments too. “Sam Jackson let me know that he had made all his script choices ahead of time,” said Robinson with an amused tone. “When I gave him one adjustment on his performance, he gave me that Sam Jackson look.”
“I felt like I was about two feet tall!” he added. “But he took the note and was great to work with.”
An Uplifting Story for Our Time
Diane Ladd calls it a “delight” to portray a Gold Star mother alongside on-screen spouse Plummer in “The Last Full Measure,” a brand of patriotic film Hollywood rarely makes anymore.
“Good and evil are always warring against each other,” she said. “You have to be brave enough to stand up and speak out, as Todd has done with this movie–and as these veterans did. It took them 32 years to get that medal for their son and comrade in arms.”
Robinson hopes to open eyes regarding the personal cost of war. “We should consider carefully when we decide to swing our terrible, swift sword, that we haven’t tried détente and diplomacy first,” he said. “War is a terrible thing to put anyone through, and it doesn’t just affect the warriors. It affects their moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and children.”
The director believes the real-life valor depicted in the film has a message for today’s culture, one he hopes sticks with viewers longer than any impressive scene or star performance.
“When these men were in foxholes someplace, being shot at and bombed, all they cared about was being there for each other,” he said. “That is really who we should be as Americans. This movie reminds us that we should be caring for and about each other, recognizing the sacrifices of others on our behalf.”
Rated R for war violence and language, “The Last Full Measure” is now playing in theaters nationwide.