Judge Gordon Sullivan doesn't think it's worth taking a chance on this film.
When one falls, another brings him home.
There have been bumper stickers floating around for a while now that read something like "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam," and sometimes it feels like the war in Iraq is my generation's Vietnam. However, there are some very significant differences, especially where the media is concerned. With Vietnam the carnage was brought into people's living rooms and many suggest this was a large part of the reason for our withdrawal from that conflict. With Iraq, media coverage is a bit different, with little carnage and maximum action impact. Also with Vietnam, it took a while for cinema to take a serious stab at the conflict. This is in direct contrast to Iraq, where we've seen what seems like dozens of high-profile projects dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ever since we put troops on the ground. We can now add Taking Chance, which originally aired on HBO, to the list of films attempting to make sense of America's presence in Iraq. Tragically, what I had hoped would be an incisive look at the cost of war turns out to be a boring, sugarcoated, dramatically uninteresting examination of one man's attempt to understand war.
Facts of the Case
Lt. Colonel Mike Strobl (Kevin Bacon, Where the Truth Lies) pushes pencils for the Marines at Quantico, alternately grateful and regretful that he hasn't returned to the Middle East since his time there during Desert Storm. While guiltily scanning the daily casualty lists, Strobl discovers that a PFC Chance Phelps has been killed, and he joined up in Strobl's hometown of Clifton, Colorado. Although it's rare for so high-ranking an officer to escort a PFC, Strobl volunteers to take the boy's remains to his parents in Wyoming. Along the way Strobl encounters numerous people who have been affected by the war in Iraq and learns what duty really means.
About two thirds of the way through Taking Chance, we hear the story of PFC Phelps' death. In this simple story we can see the tragedy of Chance's death: while on a routine patrol, an IED went off, and Chance was killed by gunfire in the ensuing carnage.
On the one hand, Chance's death served absolutely no purpose. He went out (on his day off) on a routine patrol through a nigh-worthless desert "protecting" a country for reasons he couldn't even name (which isn't really his fault; I'm not sure anyone can adequately explain our invasion of Iraq at this late date). He was an invader, most likely killed by people who thought (perhaps mistakenly, perhaps not) they were "defending" their homeland. In this light, Taking Chance is a pathetic, surreal spectacle. We see the bodies packed in ice, the gentle cleaning of the body, and insistence on rendering honors every time the casket goes into or out of a vehicle. In some ways, the honor is so completely hollow. I get the feeling that if all of these people wanted to remember and honor PFC Phelps they would do everything in their power to ensure that no other PFCs, or anyone for that matter, has to die in some nameless desert on a dubious mission in a foreign country that never officially attacked America. None of that comes through though, and the film does nothing to bring home the real cost of war, nor does it deal with why we're over there.
On the other hand, PFC Phelps died protecting his friends. From the top of his vehicle as a lookout he drew fire to give the other members of his platoon a chance to recover and return fire. In this human light, the respect shown for his remains makes much more sense. I've had friends who've served in the sandbox as they so lovingly call it, and if any one of them were killed in action I'd want the same treatment for them no matter what I think of the war they might have died in. The surreal spectacle of washing and clothing the dead transforms into a comforting ritual for those left behind as they remember their fallen Marine.
Sadly, Taking Chance only barely raises these issues, and your response to the film will almost entirely depend on what you bring to it. If you hate the war and/or the military, Taking Chance will only anger you with its Pollyanna attitude towards soldiers and civilians (and I personally wanted Strobl to encounter an alcoholic, paraplegic veteran just for some balance). Those who go in pro-military or pro-war will be moved by the tragedy of Chance's death and the heartrending situation it places his family and community in. If, however, you go in with no feelings about the war or its warriors, Taking Chance will be a boring 78 minutes because nothing really happens. Mike Strobl takes the body from Quantico to Wyoming, meeting random supportive people on the way while struggling with his own guilt, but we never see him change, never see anything really happen to him. Quite frankly, the film is boring. This leads me to think that this story should have stayed in the nonfiction realm, with Strobl's own account and perhaps some documentary footage.
The DVD release mirrors the mixed-bag of the feature. The video quality is terrible, with much fine detail lost in distracting noise. Audio was fine, but the movie is very dialogue-heavy so the speakers don't get much of a workout. The extras, however, are more interesting than the feature. We get a featurette that covers Phelps' story, including interviews with his family as well as Lt. Col. Mike Strobl. There is also some footage of the real Chance Phelps, including home movies as well as pictures, along with a typical making-of featurette and a deleted scene.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to give credit to Kevin Bacon for looking and acting the part of a Marine lieutenant colonel. He's fit, and has the ramrod straight bearing that the Marine's are known for. Although his character doesn't seem to change much, Bacon wrings enough emotion out of the situation to make his performance interesting.
I have a feeling this film would be cathartic for those who've lost a soldier, but the lack of any dramatic structure of interest makes it difficult to recommend to anyone who isn't already set on watching it after reading the plot synopsis. The so-so DVD makes it even harder to recommend as presentation detracts from the story even as the extras add a new dimension.
Taking Chance is guilty of taking the life out of the story of PFC Chance Phelps' death.
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