A tearjerker in the best possible sense, HBO's Taking Chance tells a simple story with reverence and sensitivity.
Based on a true story, the brief film - it runs less than 90 minutes - follows the journey of a fallen American Marine, 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps, as his body makes its way across the country accompanied by a Marine escort, Lt. Col. Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon).
Strobl wrote about the experience in 2004 and his journal entry has been e-mailed and posted online, where it gained an avid following (read it at ChancePhelps.org).
Taking Chance, scheduled at 8 p.m. tomorrow on the premium cable channel, is not faithful to Strobl's experience in a literal sense - some aspects of his journey have been changed for the purposes of dramatic impact - but the film is faithful to the spirit of Strobl's real-life experience.
Strobl, a Desert Storm veteran who's now retired, didn't usually make this sort of trip, but he volunteered and was especially interested in escorting Chance when he saw his hometown listed. It was the same place in Colorado where Strobl grew up.
(For viewers who do not subscribe to HBO, Taking Chance will be released on DVD May 19.)
The film begins with the sound of a firefight in Iraq over a black screen, follows the journey of Phelps' body to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, then on to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. It's there that Strobl receives instruction on accompanying Phelps' remains. Dover is also where Phelps' body is carefully prepared by military morticians.
Director Ross Katz, who co-wrote the film with Strobl, doesn't shy from showing the process, but he films it in a way that's respectful. Viewers see the morticians cleaning Phelps' body in extreme close-up - washing a foot, cleaning a hand - but nothing graphic is shown. The same care extends to the film overall. It brims with reverence for the sacrifices made by the men and women of the U.S. armed forces on the country's behalf.
Taking Chance doesn't take a political position - viewers see Strobl look at newspaper headlines about the war, but he doesn't comment. It simply shows the consequences of any war and how Americans react. Throughout his journey, Strobl encounters sympathetic citizens who want their condolences conveyed to the Phelps family. A flight attendant gives Strobl a cross; airline employees handle Phelps' coffin with care.
At an HBO press conference last month, the director said it's important for potential viewers to understand that Taking Chance is not an Iraq War film. Those movies have largely been ignored by the film-going public.
"It's a very personal story," Katz said during the press conference in Universal City, Calif. "Beyond that, it's something we've literally never seen before in any film. This depiction of what goes on, what it takes to take one fallen Marine, airman, soldier home is something that none of us know. I think it is a revelation in that way, hopefully."
One spot where the movie may run aground in the minds of some who read Strobl's account is when it depicts Strobl, in a moment of self-pity, speaking about the guilt he feels for not serving in Iraq during the second invasion. While certainly believable in context, it's a glaring scene that takes the spotlight off Phelps and puts it on Strobl, an unnecessary distraction in a story that's dramatic and moving enough.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.
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