It is not very often that a movie review appears in this column. Furthermore, I must apologize for seeming to be so late with this one. Originally screened for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, it was produced and shown by HBO Films, and never released for commercial theater viewing. It was in fact though viewed by 7.5 million in its two television showings and received two important awards. Since discovering it in its home video format I have viewed it several times, shared it with family members and friends, and carried out my own research into the true story which gave the film birth.
Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, a Marine “mustang” and veteran himself of service in “Desert Storm”, serving in a safe, “plum” administrative position at Quantico surprises his wife and family when he volunteers for deceased escort duty. Day after day he has seen the names of American G.I.s killed in action in a war half a world away, knowing that they are largely a matter of mere statistics to the public at large. (To date now, in 2012, as I write, there have been 5000 names on these lists).
Restive about the relative comfort of his own distance from the field of battle, and anxious to get away from an office “cubicle”, he is surprised when his superiors acquiesce and he receives an assignment to accompany the remains of a Marine Corps. PFC – named Chance Phelps – to his home in rural Wyoming. (It is unusual for so senior an officer to fill such a slot).
“Taking Chance” is more a visual story than one full of dialog, and for the film’s lead actor, Kevin Bacon, the whole experience of portraying the real Michael Strobl became a very personal and poignant journey. Even in the filming itself, people from every corner of the production crew and folks encountered in the process along the way were caught up in the emotional magnetism of the story.
Death on the battlefield has been pictured on the screen often and in grim and graphic detail, and we are no strangers to what Hollywood can do with an event of warfare which many among us have actually experienced in real life. What takes place behind the scenes in how America treats its fallen warriors is a far lesser-known story – even among members of the Military; and certainly in the general population. What we see in “Taking Chance” is not only a painstakingly accurate account of the protocols and practices which are rendered our deceased “heroes”, but more, the reaction generated among outsiders who view this profound manifestation of respect in action.
My son – a frequent business traveler – called me one day to describe something that had just taken place when the captain of a flight he had just completed came over the plane’s loudspeaker upon landing: “Ladies and gentlemen, what you may not know is that we have a very special passenger riding with us on this flight. His name is Sergeant _ _ _ _ _, and he died last week in Afghanistan wearing an American uniform. If you look out the right side windows in a few minutes, you will see his military escort taking him home. We would appreciate it if you would remain in your seats until that has taken place. Thank you. . . . And God bless America.” My son said that the impact on the silent passengers was something he would always remember.
I often tell youthful audiences that the greatest example of love I have ever witnessed took place in the triage area of a U.S. MASH hospital in far-off Korea 60 years ago. What Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl re-learned on his journey taking Chance Phelps home to Wyoming, and what is so beautifully captured in this HBO movie, is a reminder of who we really are as Americans.
Photo Caption: USA TODAY described “Taking Chance” as “A small almost perfectly realized gem of a movie” and the Baltimore Sun reviewer called it “. . .one of the most eloquent and socially conscious films . . .ever presented”.