The moving HBO film Taking Chance, which will debut on Saturday, February 19, is a beautifully made, powerfully acted story about a 19-year-old Marine’s final journey home from the war in Iraq. With this elegiac effort, HBO, the pay cable giant, continues its long record of producing the highest-quality TV drama dealing with the nation’s wars, from WWII (Band of Brothers), through the Vietnam War (Dear America, Vietnam War Stories), and to today’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Taking Chance is based on “actual events,” as they say in movieland. In this case, the events are the death of 19-year-old Marine Chance Phelps in Iraq in 2004 and the journey that Marine Lt. Col. Mike Strobl underwent after he volunteered to escort the body from Dover Air Force Base to Phelps’ hometown of Dubois, Wyoming. Strobl’s journal of that journey, which he posted on line, is the heart of the film.
Strobl, a Persian Gulf War I veteran now retired from the Marine Corps, co-wrote the screenplay, along with the film’s director and executive producer Ross Katz in his first directorial effort. Katz, who was born in 1971, produced the big Hollywood movies Marie Antoinette and Lost in Translation. He does a smashing job with Taking Chance.
Chance Phelps died in March 2004, a month after he had arrived in Iraq. He “was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday,” Strobl’s journal begins. “Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn’t know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him.”
Chance Phelps was killed after volunteering to man a .50-caliber machine gun in the turret of the leading vehicle in a convoy. “The convoy came under intense fire but Chance stayed true to his post and returned fire with the big gun, covering the rest of the convoy, until he was fatally wounded.” Strobl wrote. “I was wondering about Chance Phelps,” Strobl noted in his journal as he waited to begin the work of escorting the remains. “I didn’t know anything about him; not even what he looked like. I wondered about his family and what it would be like to meet them. I did pushups in my room until I couldn’t do any more.”
What Strobl found on this journey—and what the film shows beautifully—was an outpouring of respect, tinged with sadness, from virtually everyone he encountered along the way: baggage handlers at airports, fellow commercial plane passengers, airline counter personnel, funeral home employees and, above all, the military personnel who took charge of Chance Phelps’ body in Iraq, transported it to Dover, and prepared it for burial.
Fifty-year-old Kevin Bacon does an exceptional job portraying Strobl. Bacon is every ounce the dedicated, thoughtful Marine with strong convictions about his place in the Marine Corps, about the Iraq war. and about the young man whose remains he is entrusted with. “I felt like this was a story that needs to be told,” Bacon said in a recent interview. “It’s not just about Iraq, but it’s about Vietnam and Korea and World War II. It’s really a story about war, and it’s told from a really unique perspective.”
The Vietnam War connection is present in the figure of John Phelps (played pitch perfectly by the veteran character actor Tom Wopat), Chance’s father, who appears in the last part of the film, along with the rest of his family in a stirring scene in which Bacon/Strobl delivers the body and Chance’s personal effects. It’s the most moving part of a very moving movie.
This is a movie, by the way, that transcends politics. It is about the human cost of war. It is about the troops. It is not pro or anti-Iraq War. It transcends the individual story of Chance Phelps to tell a universal one that involves anyone who has died in the service of his or her country.
For tons of info and to see a trailer, go to the extensive web site HBO has set up to spread the word.