Review of HBO's 'Taking Chance'

Kevin Bacon as a Marine escorting an enlisted man's body home in the HBO film.
Kevin Bacon as a Marine escorting an enlisted man's body home in the HBO film. (By James Bridges -- Hbo)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

Perhaps more ceremony than cinema, "Taking Chance" breaks many a movie rule. It barely has a plot, contains the absolute minimum amount of dialogue and lacks the usual antagonist-protagonist conflict. It could also be said that its real hero never speaks and barely has any scenes.

And yet rules, of course, were made to be broken. "Taking Chance," premiering tonight on HBO and filmed on location mostly in Montana, is both troubling and inspiring, a film in the spirit of "Saving Private Ryan" but on an artfully intimate scale -- masterful in technique but with no self-referential showing off. The film is small in most ways, but certainly not in stature.

Rendering honor is one of the film's themes, and also one of its singular accomplishments.

A road movie in a novel and disquieting sense, "Taking Chance" is "based on actual events," as the opening disclaimer notes. First-time director Ross Katz, also co-author of the screenplay (and producer of the film "Lost in Translation"), relies on audio imagery to start the film -- sounds of battle that include explosions and cockpit chatter, a blank-screen intercut with quick shots of Kevin Bacon in a military uniform and of preparations for a long trip -- to Wyoming and home.

Why are bags of ice carried by workers as if they were precious or sacred artifacts? They are used to help preserve the bodies of slain comrades, packed in temporary flag-draped coffins for a journey that starts at an Air Force base in Germany. In a gesture we are told is unusual, a Marine officer will accompany the body of a Pfc. to its final destination, an assignment for which he volunteers.

His reasons are, superficially, that he and the young private are from the same home town of Clifton, Colo. (although the funeral and burial will be in Dubois, Wyo.). But it turns out that the veteran and the young Marine share many bonds, and also share the special, profound relationship of men who've been engaged in battle. That battle, during the current war in Iraq, is dealt with here in mainly noncontroversial terms. A photo of George W. Bush dominates a USA Today front page at an airport, and a longhaired lad serving as a limo driver says, "I don't really get what we're doing over there," and that's about that.

Bacon plays Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a 17-year veteran of the Marines who feels quietly guilty that he's confined to a desk job and not involved in combat -- despite the chestful of medals and decorations that attest to previous combat experience. When he sees the name of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps on the latest list of casualties, he is compelled to volunteer for duty as the 19-year-old's escort.

He says goodbye to wife and children and embarks on the solemn journey. And that's pretty much the film -- Strobl's experiences escorting the "remains" of the painfully young Marine. The filmmakers show us in striking detail many of the little rituals that are part of the larger procedure, from the gentle cleansing of the dead man's fingers and toes (his face and most battle scars are avoided) to the fastening of a creepy bar-code tag to the black body bag.

That's one of the few cold, bureaucratic acts. For the most part, as the film makes clear, remarkable care is shown and taken by those who come in contact with the remains at each stage of the journey -- loading the long box onto one plane or another, carrying it in a hearse, carefully placing a memento inside the coffin and even, in an unusual gesture, declining the offer of a hotel room so he can sleep near the coffin inside a cargo hangar at a stopover.

At each stop, whenever the box is transferred from one conveyance to another, Strobl salutes -- a smart but slow salute, held until the box passes by. Sometimes onlookers or passersby feel compelled to register their own respect in some similar sort of gesture. At one point, as the remains are being transported in a long back limousine down a narrow Western highway, the cars behind form an impromptu cortege, headlights on as another sign of respect.

One could argue that such actions ring hollow, even meaningless. They are, indeed, inadequate to the occasion. But one does what one can; it's the motivation behind the effort, rather than the effort itself, that is moving and later haunting.

In the course of Strobl and Phelps's long journey, only one citizen shows disrespect: a snippy security agent at an airport checkpoint. Strobl is told to remove his Marine jacket with its heavy load of metal decoration. He angrily refuses. There is a nonconfrontational resolution after some foolish huffing and puffing by the agent.

There are moments when the case of young Phelps risks seeming too generic, as if this were a military propaganda piece exploiting a combat casualty. But such reactions are fleeting and finally overwhelmed by the film's heartfelt intensity. The wordplay of the title is perhaps unfortunate, if not seemingly inevitable. Bacon's performance is one of his best, stoicism raised to the level of art, yet not without warm, human moments -- sort of Clint Eastwood with soul. Or heart.

Among the tiny surprises: Tom Wopat, so long ago a Duke of "Hazzard" on CBS, popping up in the role of Phelps's true-grit father. Katz is a masterful modulator, especially of sounds -- the sounds of an exceptional musical score, the clamor of the battlefield, and silence -- silence in all its mystery.

"He'd be so happy" that an officer "brought him home," one of Phelps's relatives tells Strobl at a memorial service. When Strobl briefly expresses regret that his role of "escort" feels hollow and meaningless to him, a Korean War vet reprimands him. "Without a witness," he tells Strobl, Phelps would just "disappear."

Attention must indeed be paid, as Arthur Miller wrote of quite a different character, and respect must be shown. "Taking Chance" gives us all the opportunity to render honor.

Taking Chance (90 minutes) premieres tonight at 8 on HBO.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company