A film review by Craig J. Koban


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 themes. 

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?  Really?  There 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 failure.


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