The war in Iraq has been the subject of an increasing number of movies. While some deal with the politics, some put you right on the frontline of it all. Some are realistic true-story depictions of that war ("Generation Kill"), while others are pure fictional action movies ("Green Zone"). On this background, HBO and writer/director Ross Katz made "Taking Chance", a somewhat unique movie on this topic.
Kevin Bacon plays Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a United States Marine Corps officer. Strobl had fought in the first Gulf War, but during the second one, he chose to work as a strategic analyst at the Quantico Marine Core Base. This decision upsets him. He feel a lot of of guilt for not doing his part. As an expression of that guilt, he checks the casualty lists daily, until one day he finds a young man's name from his hometown of Clifton Colorado. PFC Chance Phelps. He decides to volunteer as a funeral escort for the soldier's body. What this escort duty means is that Strobl must follow the body all the way from the military mortuary in Minneapolis, to Chance's hometown (which he discovers was actually Dubois, Wyoming), verifying the handling of the casket every time it has to be moved, and ultimately surrender the body and personal belongings to his family. Attending the actual funeral is optional, but the moment this instruction is mentioned to Strobl, I had a feeling he would attend it.
The story is inspired by a 12-page narrative essay written by Strobl (who co-wrote this movie as well) based on a diary he kept and follows his week-long trip and experiences. We ourselves become a part of this sad procession, and despite the heartbreaking subject matter, I couldn't help but fall in admiration of how the marine funeral detail works and the dedication of the people involved. For example, the movie shows us a glimpse of how the military mortuary personnel cleans up the personal belongings of PFC Phelps and the attention and respect with which they handle both them and his body are surreal. Further more, throughout the trip, Strobl meets people who express their respect and admiration for the fallen soldier in ways that left me speechless. Almost made me think there's hope for humanity. The movie, however, never descends into gratuitous melodrama, but instead presents us with a natural sense of human drama in a way that surprises us and catches us off-guard, despite its apparent predictability.
We never see Phelps. There are no flashbacks, we don't see his body. Yet, he becomes a character in this movie, as if he were still alive before out eyes, though all we ever see is the metal box that carries him. What we do learn about him is communicated through interactions with some supporting character. We learn how he died, what kind of man he was, but, in the end we acknowledge that we will never really know this young man. One war veteran tells a conflicted Strobl : "You are his witness now. Without a witness, they disappear". Through this movie, we too become witnesses. It's a moving and painful experience, but a valuable one at the same time.
The movie is short, at just 75 minutes (77 with credits), but every minute is used to good effect. The script tightly focuses on the subject matter and manages to avoid any kind of political statements, or cheap emotional manipulation. It simply observes the events and allows the moments to speak out to us. Kevin Bacon shows tremendous restraint and focus, crafting a subtle and touching portrait of Mike Strobl. He won a Golden Globe for his performance, but it made me wish this movie had been released theatrically. Then, maybe, he could have had a chance at the Oscars. He's that good.
The movie is terribly sad, so I would hardly recommend watching this on a bright summer day. Instead, choose to see it when you feel like weighing in on some tough issues. It might not be for everyone, but I just have to recommend it anyway.
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