Review: HBO’s ‘Taking Chance’

Kevin Bacon
Kevin Bacon plays Lt. Col. Michael Strobl in HBO’s “Taking Chance.”
(James Bridges / Associated Press)
Television Critic

If you want to understand the over-cited concept of the electronic hearth or see proof of the power and significance of television as a medium, then you must watch “Taking Chance,” which debuts tonight on HBO.

‘Taking Chance’: In Saturday’s Calendar section, a review of the TV movie “Taking Chance” misstated the origin of the project. Producer Brad Krevoy, not producer-writer-director Ross Katz, brought the story to HBO. —

This is not so much a film as it is an American moment, an opportunity to take refuge from the opinion polls and policy reports, the politicizing that has swirled around the war in Iraq since its early days, to acknowledge and contemplate the basic, singular sacrifice every war requires.

Five years ago, Lt. Col. Michael Strobl of the Marine Corps asked that he be allowed to escort the body of 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps from the Air Force base in Dover, Del., to Dubois, Wyo., where the young man’s parents lived.

Along the way, Strobl, a Desert Storm veteran, was so struck by the reaction of the people he encountered that he compiled a diary of the trip and posted it on several military sites. It wove its way through the Internet and into the hands of producer Ross Katz. He took it to HBO and, with Strobl, wrote the script, then directed the simply-told and at times almost unbearably affecting 90-minute film.

“Taking Chance” is, essentially, the epilogue to every war movie you’ve ever seen. The film opens with Phelps’ death in Iraq and meticulously follows everything that happens next, from the Marine guard who must inform his parents to the care and handling of the body as it makes its way back from Iraq. Here is the metal box stamped “Hero,” here is the black body bag, here are the sacks of ice placed around the bag, here are the comrades saluting as the boxes are put on the plane. From the washing of the body to the bar code identification to the fastidious repair of Phelps’ uniform, every detail in the process is captured. But this is no docu-drama. Shot with an unapologetic reverence that is almost startling in these cynical times, “Taking Chance” is a tone poem, made all the more poignant by the black-out of these sorts of images during the Bush administration. (The ban prohibiting media photos of flag-draped coffins is currently under review.)

We meet Strobl, who is played by Kevin Bacona diary of the trip, as he sits at his computer, scrolling through the lists of the dead. Strobl is a numbers cruncher now, a career Marine who is home every night in time to help his kids with their homework and compliment his wife on her chicken chili with balsamic reduction. All clenched jaw and silent defensive eyes, Bacon appears ready to assume the Clint Eastwood mantle should Eastwood feel the need to surrender it -- the years have turned the quasi-Brat Packer into a man capable of expressing a roiling universe of rage and sorrow and fear with minimal movement and very little dialogue. Where other actors chew scenery, Bacon blinks and your breath catches in your throat. His Strobl offers to escort Phelps because Phelps is from his hometown, but clearly there is more involved -- a need to do something other than spend nights bathed in the eerie glow of a laptop and the dead.

So there are two journeys begun. At every stop, Strobl encounters the admiration, regret and gratitude of all sorts of Americans, from the landscaping crew at the Dover base to a young hearse driver, from the woman at the airport ticket counter to the pilot who knows the name of every soldier whose remains he has flown home. Shocked by the outpouring of support, Strobl struggles to carry out his duty without feeling like a fraud -- at one point, he gives way, deriding himself for not having requested a tour of duty in Iraq only to be slapped into line by a Korean War vet who reminds him that no man should apologize for wanting to see his children and that someone must remain to bear witness to those who have fallen, otherwise “they just disappear.”

It is a quiet and slow-moving movie that doesn’t miss a single emotional pressure point -- Katz clearly believes in the power and necessity of catharsis.

But “Taking Chance” is saved from patriotic sentimentality by its attention to detail and Bacon’s performance. It’s hard to imagine another actor who could carry this role so steadily, without lapsing into pathos or bathos or at least a wisecrack or two. Bacon brings to this film the same thing that Strobl brought to Phelps’ funeral -- the instant honor conferred by a high-ranking officer and the understanding that in war, every name on those grim lists is a heartbreak. Surely, then, it is our responsibility to ensure that our soldiers are cared for as well in life as they are in death.

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