A Marine's long road home
There's something profoundly reverent about "Taking Chance." This spare, powerful new HBO movie follows the dead body of 19-year-old Lance Corporal Chance Phelps from Iraq to his family in Wyoming, with Kevin Bacon starring as his military escort.
We see each deliberate step of Chance's 2004 journey in quiet, close-up - the rinsing of blood off Chance's wristwatch, the packing of his body in bags of ice, the casket's night in an airport storage room with Bacon's Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl sleeping on the floor beside it.
And we see every stranger in proximity of Chance's casket pay solemn tribute - saluting, sending condolences to Chance's family via Strobl, and, in one poignantly silent sequence, turning on their headlights when they see the casket being transported to the funeral home. As the fact-based story, adapted from the real Strobl's journal, portrays the terrible cost of war, it's not tinged with rage or cynicism so much as dignity. When an airline clerk upgrades Strobl's plane seat after learning of his task, the respectful atmosphere may bring a tear to your eye.
And yet, there is something distinctly subversive about "Taking Chance," which premieres tonight at 8. The movie contradicts the ban on media images of military coffins that has been in place since the first Gulf War. As the camera holds fast to Chance's casket on its way home, the storytelling is charged with an undercurrent of taboo. So this is the final sojourn that we're not meant to see, that has become politicized as either antiwar or threatening to American morale? Merely by publicly chronicling the progress of a Marine's remains, "Taking Chance" feels almost incendiary.
Director and co-writer Ross Katz pares the movie down to a minimum. There's not a lot of dialogue in "Taking Chance," which is less than 90 minutes long, and most of the characterizations are brief and peripheral, a series of cameos along Strobl's travels. The force of the story comes in the steady, unblinking way Katz takes us into every practical specific of the eight-day trip, right until we are in the room with Chance's grieving parents as they greet Strobl and receive their son's effects.
Bacon plays Strobl with a lovely stoicism that lends more emotional weight than anything the script could have him say about the tragedy of a fallen hero. Feeling guilty about working in a military cubicle, Strobl has decided to escort a body home to close the distance between his suburban life and the reality of the war in Iraq. The movie doesn't dwell too much on Strobl's motivations but does make it clear that even a guy who once served in Desert Storm needs to put a face on all the statistics.
President Obama is currently considering lifting the ban on casket images, and so "Taking Chance" is timely. Should Obama's commitment to transparency extend to the almost 5,000 Americans who've lost their lives in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts? In its graceful and determined way, "Taking Chance" seems to be saying yes, we should bear witness. As an older veteran tells Strobl toward the end of the journey, "Without a witness, they just disappear."
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.