A sad and simple Iraq tale that doesn’t even begin to achieve the tragic stature it takes for granted.

Taking Chance

on January 17, 2009 by Ray Greene
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This just in: Apparently war is still hell, especially for those who lose loved ones in combat. We know this thanks to HBO and producer-turned-director Ross Katz, whose inaptly named Taking Chance is an Iraq war movie that charts the safest course imaginable through the murk of what most currently acknowledge as America’s catastrophic Mid-East misadventure by following the body of one soldier home and grieving for him, as any person with an ounce of human emotion certainly must.

It’s 2004, and Bernie Madoff financial scam victim Kevin Bacon (in full and craggy Sam Shepard mode) is Lt. Col. Michael R. Strobl, a Marine officer at mid-life with a stateside desk job who obsessively checks the casualty reports out of Iraq each night. A veteran of the earlier and more successful Operation Desert Storm, Strobl suffers something akin to survivor guilt and when he spots a name on the list from his home region he volunteers to escort the body of PFC Chance Phelps home.

That journey is as ritualistic (and ultimately as predictable) as the Stations of the Cross, with Strobl and the deceased Marine unifying a fractured America into a Greek chorus of uncompromised woe. A stewardess hands Strobl a crucifix. Flag-draped caskets are off-loaded in the rain. When the military hospital in Germany cleans Chance’s body, their work is shown in lingering close-up, as if Magdalene were washing the wounds of Christ. Mortuary ground crews silently remove their baseball caps as Chance is loaded into a hearse for transport. On the road, a spontaneous cortege of vehicles ignites its headlights and envelopes Chance’s flag-draped casket to help carry him home. Even the one timorous voice that questions the mission, a longhaired kid with a band who says “No offense” before politely wondering what we’re doing in Iraq, clasps Strobl’s hand emotionally and says, “Will you do me a favor? Let the family know we’re thinking of them” before sending the officer and his charge on their way.

It’s often (but not always) very affecting, and the lingering attention to the process of military body preparation and transport is made all the more esoteric by the Pentagon’s success in restricting real images of actual soldiers’ caskets for so much of the war. But while Taking Chance is a true story and there’s no reason to doubt that Strobl was received with a great deal of sympathy on his sad journey, in a world where even Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann support the troops, does this really tell us much that isn’t patently obvious to anybody with a brain and a heart?

Given Bacon’s much-publicized fiscal troubles, it would be nice if Taking Chance were better, if only so that Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick can avoid selling hair care and exercise products on the Home Shopping Network in their dotage. But years after the bloody mire Chance died fighting in was initiated, it’s disheartening that American moviemakers are still capable of viewing the Iraq War in the simplest terms possible: as a wound to an essentially honorable American psyche, and maybe even a just cause and a sort of hero manufacturing device. Even if you buy that formulation, the words “I’m sorry for your loss” don’t go nearly far enough in explaining the real tragedy Taking Chance avoids looking at squarely. And given the stakes for the Chances still on the ground in a hot zone, and the Chances of tomorrow too, you don’t have to yearn for a simplistic liberal screed to wish for a more reasoned and elaborate approach to matters so vital to so many.

But to the Phelps family, and I mean this: I’m genuinely sorry for your loss.

Distributor: HBO Films
Cast: Kevin Bacon
Director: Ross Katz
Screenwriter: Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl USMC (Ret.) and Ross Katz
Producer: Lori Keith Douglas
Rating: Unrated, but with mild language, suggestions of mutilation, descriptions of military violence.
Running time: 88 min.
Release date: Unset

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