"Taking Chance" is a film of overwhelming emotional power, and consider: we weep for a man we never meet, whose face we never see, whose actions and attitudes are only learned secondhand through the memories of those that knew him well. PFC Chance Phelps remains distant to us, unknowable; he could be any of the thousands of names on the casualty rosters, who overwhelm us with their numbers but deserve to be honored one by one.
The film's power is even more impressive in that it earns such a deep reaction yet tells such a simple story. There is no melodrama, no action, no surprises, no conflict at all, except for the personal doubts of its main character. It is an unadulterated account of a quiet journey. Straightforward, unembellished. Lesser filmmakers would demand a spicing up of the details, unaware that none are needed.
"Taking Chance" tells a true story, adapting Marine Lt. Col. Mike Strobl's personal journal of his assignment escorting the remains of PFC Phelps, killed in Iraq in 2004, to Phelps' family in Wyoming. Mike, a Desert Storm vet now working as a desk jockey, feels a pang of guilt for not requesting combat duty this time around; he volunteers to be Phelps' escort after catching that the young man was from his home town.
Is he yearning for connection to someone on the front, or is he guilt-ridden for seeing someone die in what he feels is his place? The screenplay - by Ross Katz, who also makes his directing debut here, and Strobl himself - performs a delicate balancing act, keeping focus on both the mourning of Phelps and Mike's personal worries, one never overriding the other.
Mike is played by Kevin Bacon, who does so much with just the eyes, realizing that Mike is not given to much outward emotion. This is a brilliant performance - one of Bacon's very finest; just watch what the star does in the corners of the frame, so much with so little - of a quiet man, whose devotion lends the story great intensity, and whose struggles lend it great honesty. When Mike finally spills his doubts to a fellow veteran, the film could've taken a blindly jingoistic stance, yet it instead reveals great human truth. Tom Aldredge plays the Korean vet Mike meets along the way, and what great things his character has to say about how a soldier's greatest wish is to be at home.
The film also spends its time studying how we honor the dead, a chore revealed in great detail. When the debate raged on a few years back about whether or not to release photographs of military coffins to the press, talk should have turned to the sort of things we see in "Taking Chance," which explains the respect given to those coffins, and those in them.
It's all very informative - we learn how a fallen soldier's belongings are cared for, and how the body of a Marine is properly uniformed, even for a closed casket, and how the custom is for the escort to salute the casket every time it is moved from one mode of transportation to another, all working to ensure that what is essentially a parcel getting shipped cross country is not treated as mere luggage - and on that level alone, "Taking Chance" has great value. The precision of the Marines is carried over after death; this devoted sense of honor and respect is, simply put, as admirable as it is fascinating, and families of those killed in action can take some comfort in what they see here.
But if all the filmmakers wanted to do was to tell us how military remains are transported, a documentary would do just fine. In this film, with all its dramatic weight, these rituals are presented as a form of grieving. In one scene, Mike declines to stay at a hotel so he can watch over the coffin at the airport; later, he arrives at the funeral early in the morning, as if, again, to be Chance's guardian. Though voice-over, Mike tells us how he felt that as long as the two kept moving, as long as they had a mission, a destination, Chance had a sense of still being alive. Only the cemetery could grant Phelps' remains a finality, and only there does Mike walk away from his charge.
Perhaps this is why all those scenes of Mike quietly saluting a box as it rolls onto a plane are so affecting. It's not just an empty gesture or a mandatory show of tradition. It's an attempt by Mike - and by those, both uniformed and civilian, who often join him - to reconcile the harshness of death with the undying memory of love. All of our post-death rituals involve an assurance that the departed will not be forgotten, and by bestowing great honor, even on a scale as small as a Marine or two saluting in the night, that assurance can continue, if only for a little while longer.
Through Mike, we feel as if we've come to know Chance, which makes Mike's arrival in his parents' home town a gutwrencher, to be sure. And these moments are full of muted sorrow, where all it takes is a look, or a word, and we can feel these people's heartache. (The scene where Mike delivers Chance's effects to his family is beautifully handled.)
But just as strong are the moments where everyday Americans feel the loss as well. Are they all wildly patriotic souls? Perhaps, but not likely. The film has no political agenda, and that includes "support our troops" platitudes. The people we meet along Mike's journey leave their politics aside, except to return to that human truth. Mike's first companion is a teen who thought of joining the military but changed his mind. Listen to the conversation that follows, how genuine it is. How easy it could have been for the writers to turn this into a clumsy, forced lecture that tries to shoehorn a debate into the picture. Instead, Katz and Strobl simply give us two people sharing their experiences.
(The film goes so far as to hide Mike's own opinions from us. We know he is a devoted Marine, but how does he vote? We catch him spying a glimpse at Bush and Rumsfeld in the headlines but are left to translate his stare. Is he frustrated by the protests? Angry at how the civilian leadership in the Pentagon is handling things? We'll never know - nor should we. It's far more interesting to study his feelings of duty and ineffectiveness. When Mike discovers that Chance's parents are starting a fund to send gear to the troops, he flinches; allocating such gear is his job back home, and when we first meet him, he's recommending the bare minimum, a decision he now perhaps regrets, standing there in Wyoming, preparing for the funeral of a Marine he couldn't save. There's more in this single reaction shot than there would be in any monologue about Mike being pro-Bush or anti-war.)
As Mike travels the country, he is met with people who share his sorrow for a man none of them have met. They are all affected, feeling connected to those who serve, even if only indirectly. It comes back to remembrance: when we share our grief, we let others know that the deceased is not forgotten, not even by strangers.
All of this lends "Taking Chance" such great, raw power. It's tough to watch at times, yet under the pain and determination and honor is a sense of community. We have the ability to mourn those we never knew, and that reveals an essential goodness that's at the heart of this story. This is one of the finest of all cinematic tributes to military service, and a wonderful reminder of what we all share, the kindness that can come out of grief.
Video & Audio
The serviceable 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is mostly decent and occasionally lovely, especially when it lingers on the American landscapes. The picture features nice detail and crisp color.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is solid affair, adding a richness to the dialogue without letting music overwhelm the moment. A Spanish stereo dub is included, as are English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese subtitles.
The first half of the two-part documentary "Bearing Witness" (23:00; 1.78:1 flat letterbox) features interviews with Chance's family and fellow Marines, who share fond memories and discuss the aftermath of his death; the second half details how Strobl got involved. Expanding on Chance's story without being too redundant, it makes a nice companion piece to the film.
Not quite so with "The Real Chance Phelps" (6:01; 1.78:1 anamorphic), which uses family interviews to lead into a sort of EPK hard sell. The promotional vibe doesn't fit well with the earnest attempts to pay tribute to Phelps. At least the interviews are, again, quite moving.
"From Script to Screen" (5:17; 1.78:1 anamorphic) focuses entirely on the behind-the-scenes, with your usual on-set interviews and film clips, although a heavy emphasis is placed on the filmmakers' attempts to honor, not exploit, Phelps' story.
A brief deleted scene (1:55; 1.78:1 flat letterbox) shows Mike handing over his duties to a fellow Marine. It's a nice moment on its own, but within the film, it would've lessened the impact of the shot of Mike sitting alone with the casket before the funeral.
A brief PSA for Fisher Houses (:32; 1.33:1) explains how the charity supports military families.
Promos for other HBO releases play as the disc loads.
Anchored by terrific performances and subtle, intelligent direction, "Taking Chance" is an extraordinary, deeply moving work. Highly Recommended.