In 1999, writer/director Todd Robinson was at Kirtland Air Force Base to attend a PJ graduation ceremony. In attendance was William F. Pitsenbarger, the father of Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger, a PJ who was killed in action on April 11, 1966, when he volunteered to stay behind with the soldiers of the Big Red One during Operation Abilene.
During his speech, Mr. Pitsenbarger lamented the things his son, who died at the age of 21, would never do: fall in love and have a son of his own, and in doing so, understand his father's love for him.
"I was floored," recalled Robinson, "I remembered my own father's fear for me during the Vietnam War and I thought about my own son." He reflected on the brutality of the draft during the Vietnam War and what the experience was like for the veterans who were called to serve — and their families they left behind.
Robinson didn't know if he wanted to make a war film until that moment. He became committed to the veterans. "If I could make a small contribution by looking into what the personal experiences were like for these men, it would be the least I could do," he shared.
"I began to interview the veterans of that battle. Their stories were just so tragic, brutal, moving, unrequited...and they were looking for purpose: it was so important to them to see that this man's valor was recognized before his father passed."He spent the next 20 years creating The Last Full Measure, a powerful retelling of the courageous acts of Airman 1st Class Pitsenbarger and the men who fought for his Medal of Honor.
The Last Full Measure is best described as a military movie made by a director who "gets it" — who understands that war is chaotic and that the complexities of PTSD for combat veterans require a conversation from our society as a whole.
One of the biggest takeaways he gained about the military community through the making and screening of this film was the notion of "service greater than self," Robinson told WATM. Screening the film for veterans across the country, Robinson saw the spirit of Pitsenbarger's sacrifice reflected in the men and women in uniform today. When it comes down to the wire, service members are there for the person at their side.
He also noticed that the film triggered a real need to have a conversation about the wellness of veterans — especially combat vets.
"We, as civilians, the people who benefit from the service of these people, don't understand what they've been through. We don't always embrace our own complicity in sending service members overseas. If you're a taxpayer or voter, whether you agree with the policy or not, you're responsible. We're also responsible for bringing them home. They need to be given more attention than just a pat on the head, a business-class trip home, and some medication from the VA. We need to embrace our military community when they come home. We need to employ them. And we need to say, 'You're not alone,'" Robinson affirmed.
Robinson felt like he owed something back and this film was part of what he could give. Of course, it came with many challenges. In his own words, "Making a movie is organized chaos." Robinson and his producing partner Signey Sherman, noticed a uniform error in one scene and a folded flag that was coming undone in another. They spent $10,000 out of pocket to correct the errors in post-production. "It just looked disrespectful to me," Robinson lamented.
Somehow a bootleg copy was released overseas containing the original errors and viewers complained. "Those kinds of things pop up. I suppose the real challenge is trying to explain to an audience, without feeling too sensitive, that a film is an impression of a story. My job was to identify the metaphor of the story and what we could say about the men who fought in Operation Abilene. It always came back to service before self."
Todd Robinson and Ed Harris filming The Last Full Measure, 2017. (Photo by Jackson Davis)
To help accomplish that goal, Robinson hired veterans on and off camera. In the Medal of Honor ceremony scene, real PJs wear their maroon berets while veterans of Charlie Company fill the audience. There that day was retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant John Pighini, a decorated Vietnam War-era PJ and active member of the Pararescue community.
After that scene, Pighini came on-board as a technical advisor for the shoot on location in Thailand, where Robinson and his cast and crew had six days to shoot the entirety of the Vietnam scenes for the film — no small undertaking.
He had a crew of 300 with battle scenes featuring helicopters and explosions. There was no luxury of time. He gives credit to his editor, Richard Nord, and the expertise of his cast and crew. At the end of the day, the film, decades in the making, wasn't done for financial profit or gain.
"We made this film for our veteran community. We tried to reflect back and let them know that people see them and we want to be part of the solution to whatever problems they face when they come home."
The Last Full Measure is available now on Blu-ray/DVD and Digital from Lionsgate and features several special features such as a "Medal of Honor Ceremony Shoot" featurette and "The Others May Live: Remembering Operation Abilene" featurette.
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