A film review by Craig J. Koban
Movie / Premiered February 21
Original Movie / Premiered February 21
2009, no MPAA rating, 78 mins.
Kevin Bacon: Lt. Col. Michael Strobl / Tom Aldridge: Charlie Fitts / James Castanien: Robert Orndorff / Enver Gjokaj: Corporal Arenz / Tom Wopat: Mr. Phelps
Directed by Ross Katz / Written by Katz and Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl
If there were one glaring issue with the new HBO historical drama, TAKING CHANCE, then it would be that it’s fiercely moving and harrowingly emotional at times while simultaneously coming off as coy, desperate, and ultimately manipulative.
Now, I have been fond of
certain films that have manipulated me before, but the ones that
have lingered with me the most were subtle and discrete with
their manipulation. Yes,
TAKING CHANCE is noble-minded in its staunch patriotism and has particular
key moments of raw, nationalistic power that it’s easy to see how some
viewers will easily be overcome with tears.
The heart and essence of the film is definitely in the right
place (it speaks to the quiet strength and proud mindset of Americans
during times of war), but the film strips itself away from any
long-standing dramatic vigor because it, in the long run, left me feeling
less inspired and affected by the proceedings because it seemed to be
going out of its way to tell me how to feel.
The film certainly tells a story of potential, heart-rending potency. Based on the real life experiences and personal journal of Lt. Col Michael Strobl (who also served as the film’s co-writer), the film tells the story of him trying to escort the body of a young marine, PFC Chance Phelps (posthumously promoted to LCpl) back to his hometown for his funeral and inevitable burial. It’s not a “war film”, per se, but like recent films about Iraq (like, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH and the even better, more undervalued STOP-LOSS) it tells a simple narrative of the effects of war on the home front.
All throughout watching
TAKING CHANCE I was overcome with more than a bit of spiteful anger and
resentment to the manner with which former President Bush, VP Dick Cheney,
and Secretary Rumsfeld demanded and ordered the press not to take pictures
of the returning dead soldiers from Iraq, or show the troops in their flag
covered coffins when unloaded off of the planes.
What’s all the more shameful is how these political actions
subverted the country’s abilities to pay an even modest amount of
respect for the fallen men and women that died for their country, which
kind of ironically dishonored their collective memories.
Maybe these actions stem from the fact that they did not want to
have citizens see dead soldiers coming home on the six o’clock news
because they knew Americans would have a reason to even further criticize
the White House for an un-just war.
TAKING CHANCE easily stirs
up those buried emotions within me from the get-go, and although the film
attempts to be triumphant homage to the dead that should be given their
due while being a largely apolitical work about the Iraqi conflict, the
film nonetheless left me feeling more hollow and empty than it should have
been. Any film that goes out
of its way to pay dutiful honor to the unspeakable bravery and commitment
Americans displayed at the cost of their lives and at a deep personal cost
to their respective families is decent and highly respectable enough, but
the film really falters in the arena of having audiences finding an
emotional connection to both Strobl and the dead solider he escorts. What we are left with is an intensely jingoistic work that
lacks an understanding of the personas involved.
Instead, we get a lot of regurgitated and increasingly redundant
shots of the coffin coming off of airplanes, accompanied by Strobl
saluting it…over and over again.
The fact that it focuses more on the coffin’s journey across
American and less on developing the characters is to its ultimately fault.
This is even more
disheartening considering that the main performance in the film by Kevin
Bacon is so quietly strong and deeply felt.
He plays Strobl at a point in 2004 when he comes across the name of
Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, a young marine that had been recently killed
by hostile fire in Al Anbar in Iraq.
Strobl, despite not have much recent war experience on the battle
field, could relate to Chance’s experiences, seeing as he participated
in Desert Storm 17 years earlier. Instead of seeing another tour of duty back in the early
90’s, Strobl decided to make a career sacrifice by not further enlisting
for more tours and to find a cozy and safer desk job back home so he could
be with his family more. However
simple and modest his home front duties were with the military, Strobl
became somewhat obsessed with reading about all of the fallen soldiers
from the current war. Because
of his highly conflicted personal state, he decided to take it upon
himself to join other military personnel by volunteering for escort duty
as the American Iraq War deaths skyrocketed.
When he came across Chance’s name, he sprung to action.
Strobl then decided to make
it his personal mission to take the remains of Chance on a long trek to be
back home with his family and friends in the tiny community of Dubois,
Wyoming. His weeklong trip is an arduous one, both physically and
spiritually, as he takes the body from a Delaware military mortuary all
the way to Wyoming. Along the
way he becomes very touched with the strong outpouring of respect and
teary-eyed understanding that people all over America (some being complete
strangers) display over Chance’s ultimate sacrifice.
The outpouring of spontaneous emotion and support (from people as
far ranging as groundskeepers to flight attendants to the cargo handlers
of the airports, not to mention Chance’s family and friends) convinced
Strobl to commemorate his trip in a 20-page journal.
This first person account began, logically enough, as a fairly
routine office report back to his superiors, evolved into something more
searing and bitter sweet for Strobl and those that read it (it apparently
became a real Internet phenomenon and eventually circulated throughout the
military and media).
One area in particular is a real
stand out in TAKING CHANCE: its incredibly detailed chronicle of the
pain-staking procedures that the military embarks in to pay respect to the
dead. The manner that all of the slain solders’ personal effects
(nothing is considered too trivial) and body are so precisely cleaned and
handled with such a fine, delicate level of care is kind of astonishing.
The way they clean the dirt and blood away slowly and cautiously
from the bodies, the way they cleaned and pressed the uniform for the body
with an impeccable consideration, the way Strobl had to follow a intensely
strict set of guidelines for ensuring that the body is saluted at all
times when it leaves and is loaded on airplanes…all of these moments
feel absolutely convincing. The
Defense Department, as stated, banned all media coverage of the dead
coming home since the ’91 war, but the military did the right thing by
offering up their advice and assistance to the film crew to ensure that
all accounts of Chance’s body’s preparation were carefully and
truthfully portrayed and executed. Because of this, TAKING CHANCE becomes, at times, as
hypnotically transfixing as a documentary.
I have rarely found military themed films to be as thoroughly
informative and intimate as this one.
Yet, for as much respect the
film pays to all of the minutia of the procedures involved with prepping
and transporting Chance's body, the very sparse 78-minute narrative
focuses an agonizing amount of its time dragging the same scene after
scene out of Bacon escorting the body, saluting the body as its loaded,
saluting the body as its unloaded, saluting the body as its loaded
again…and so forth. Certainly,
the film is seriously benefited by Bacon’s calmly serene and delicately
underplayed performance (his solid restraint and dignified poise in the
film is the right approach, which takes the spotlight off of him) and the
presence of Chance remains a constant throughout the movie.
Unfortunately, the film affords too much of its time on the world
of the transporting the soldier’s body across American instead of honing
in on the more moving aspect of the reactions of the people both close to
Chance and those that never knew him at all.
By the time the film does make its way to Chance’s home town with
his parents and well wishers, TAKING CHANCE seems to hastily rush itself
towards a conclusion without further developing the wounded soul of a
small town trying to find logic in the death of a young one that was taken
away too early. The lack of
genuine human interaction subverts the introspection and sense of
reverence TAKING CHANCE could have achieved with its underlining story and
And, on the subject of themes,
that’s another detriment to the film’s worth: You finish watching
TAKING CHANCE and are left a bit perplexed...it's never entirely certain
what this film was trying to say.
As a heartfelt ode to a fallen soldier (and the countless others
that have fallen) in a senseless conflict, TAKING CHANCE is more than
noble-minded. Beyond that,
though, it’s a rather empty thematic vessel.
Thankfully, the film avoids the pratfall of engaging in
pretentious, Hollywood levels of engaging in pompous political
aggrandizing, but what does this film think about the war in Iraq?
is an undercurrent of blind patriotism in the film, by which I mean that
it almost seems to say that it does not matter why a soldier dies,
but the only thing that matters is that we honor and salute them.
Undoubtedly, there’s some credence to that (giving people a sense
of comfort in knowing that their dead will get respect is important), but
the film could have been even more invigorating and compelling if it
provided a more resonating rationale for getting people to emotionally
respond to Chance’s fate. Perhaps
if the film concerned itself more with the needlessness of his demise (and
the conflict he was in) then TAKING CHANCE would have deserved the tears
it tries to make us shed and shed often.
There was much that I liked
here: Bacon, as stated, is
the rock-steady heart and anchor for the film, and the way the story dives
into all of the most meticulous details of preparing the soldier's body
was surprisingly educational (the people who partake in these jobs defy
the word “thankless”), but TAKING CHANCE is too mechanical in
approach, which smothers the true essence of the sad journey within the
film. This is a story about
burial procedures and traditions (and the film is hypnotically watching on
these levels), but the human figures around these elements are too vague
and enigmatically rendered. You
never gain a truly touching appreciation for TAKING CHANCE
because its characters are so oddly aloof throughout its barely
90-minute running time. I
found myself responding to the little technicalities of the film, but did
not feel like I grew to know or understand Strobl, Chance, or his family
very well. This is human
drama with the humanity taking a back seat, which is why TAKING
CHANCE does not deserve a higher ranking than that of honorable
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THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP (2010) 1/2
YOU DON'T KNOW JACK (2010)
THE SUNSET LIMITED (2011)
CINEMA VERITE (2011) 1/2
TOO BIG TO FAIL (2011) 1/2
GAME CHANGE (2012)
HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN (2012) 1/2
THE GIRL (2012) ----
PHIL SPECTOR (2013)
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)
CLEAR HISTORY (2013)