‘Taking Chance’: Tragic simplicity

February 17, 2009

 

There’s no argument that much of the best work in filmed entertainment these days is being done for television – something that Ross Katz’s film, “Taking Chance,” only confirms.

 

“Taking Chance,” which had its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was made for HBO and begins airing at 8 p.m. Saturday. There have been many worthy films about the Iraq war – most of them documentaries – but this one dramatizes a true story in a way that will break your heart without ever feeling manipulative or gratuitous.

 

Kevin Bacon plays Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a Marine who works at a desk in manpower deployment. Though he served in Desert Storm, he purposely chose not to go to Iraq. Married, with small children, he opted to serve in a capacity that wouldn’t separate him from his family.

 

But as he watches coffins return from the Middle East on a daily basis, he feels guilt and remorse over his decision. As a kind of personal penance, he volunteers for escort duty accompanying Pfc. Chance Phelps, a dead Marine killed in Iraq, to his hometown in Wyoming.

 

And that’s the whole movie. In a compact 85 minutes, Katz follows Strobl as he readies himself for duty, then rides with the body to the airport in Philadelphia. He flies to Minneapolis, spends the night there (sleeping in the cargo area in a chair next to the casket), then flies on to the closest airport, which is another five-hour drive to the tiny town of Dubois, Wyo., Phelps’ hometown. He turns the body over to the local mortician, meets with the family to turn over Phelps’ personal effects, attends the funeral and returns home.

 

Yet the feelings build with each stranger Strobl encounters. The empathy of people who don’t know Strobl or Phelps moves Strobl; and Strobl’s commitment to honoring Phelps (which requires him to stand at attention and salute each time the casket is moved, such as on a luggage conveyor at the airport) touches those who witness it.

 

In the process, Strobl comes to know Phelps, through the meager personal possessions he guards on his person and, later, through his fellow Marines, his family and friends in Dubois. There is sadness at his loss and honor for his service.

 

The simplicity of the film is striking – no trumped-up dramatic moments, no histrionics, no long speeches, though there are moments when a less disciplined filmmaker would have injected those Hollywood elements. Rather, this is a movie about just one man, doing his duty and observing the reaction of others to the painful detail for which he has volunteered.

 

It would be simple to make the leap that the sorrow this film evinces, the pain it seems to embody, comes from a political context. Certainly, if you’re someone who believes the war itself was a waste of resources – financial and human – this film will only reinforce those feelings.

 

But the film itself is austerely nonpolitical. It’s about honoring one man’s sacrifice, without getting into polemics of any sort. This is a movie about the shared humanity of everyone Chance Phelps encounters on his last ride home and its impact on his escort, played with understated anguish and strength by Kevin Bacon.

 

I haven’t been this moved by a film in a long, long time.

 

 

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