Retired Master Sergeant Thomas Tully (William Hurt) picks a bad day to visit Scott (Sebastian Stan) at his office. Scott’s boss has just quit unexpectedly, and with an election looming, it’s likely that Scott will soon be out of a job. So yes, Scott’s been shuffling Tully’s paperwork around on his desk for months now, but today wasn’t super ideal in terms of bringing it to his attention. Tully gets the brush off, has been getting it in some form or another for more than 30 years.
Tully fought in the Vietnam war, and he’s asking for a decorations review, an upgrade from the Cross to a Medal of Honor, not for himself, but for a comrade who didn’t come back, a young man named Pitsenbarger, known as Pits. On a particularly bloody day of the war, Operation Abilene, one company was used pretty much as bait, and before the sun set they’d taken 80% casualties all on that single day. And the only reason the other 20% survived was because of Pits, a man who didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t part of the operation. He was Air Force, part of pararescue. He and his unit were hovering in their helicopter trying to evacuate soldiers when he assessed the situation and acted. He went down. We went down because the company had already lost their medic and were taking an awful lot of fire. There were wounded everywhere. It was a miracle that he survived the descent, but what he did on land was even more remarkable.
Except his actions had only posthumously been awarded a Cross when the grateful survivors had put him up for an MOH. They were still pursuing it this many years later, hoping to commemorate all he had done for men he didn’t even know.
Scott’s in a tricky position career-wise and gets sent to check out this story. He interviews the survivors, many of them reluctant, all of them haunted (including Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, and Ed Harris). And he visits the Pitsenbarger family, finding parents (Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd) still grieving their son. This assignment may have started as a way to run out the clock on his former position, but as he begins to comprehend the black hole of bureaucracy that this simple request has suffered, he becomes more committed to seeing in through. It’s about more than acknowledging the sacrifice made by The Pitsenbarger family, it’s a balm on the psychic wounds of the people he saved. The Vietnam war in particular offered so little to its returning vets that this was really their last avenue for healing their emotional scars.
Writer-director Todd Robinson’s film is earnest, safe, and sensitive. It’s also true. It very carefully toes the tricky path of celebrating the contributions of those who served without condoning the war itself. But more than that, it serves as a reminder of a war that may have fallen away from public consciousness but is still serving aftershocks to those who narrowly survived and to the families of those who did not.