Taking a Chance
For two and a half minutes near the end of "Taking Chance," the new HBO movie about the body of a young Marine returned home for burial, there is no sound except for the salute of the riflemen and the Wyoming wind battering the flags that stand at half mast as the shattered remains of PFC Chance Phelps are placed at rest. The silence amounts to perhaps the most eloquent statement Hollywood has yet made about the Iraq War.
Its main competition is an earlier scene in the same movie. Driving along a country road behind an SUV carrying the casket, Lt. Col. Michael Strobl finds other motorists forming an impromptu funeral cortege out of respect for the departed.
"Taking Chance," which is the only Iraq movie to show the troops in a wholly positive way, is also the only one people are watching. The film industry has reduced our troops to dupes, dopes, deserters and losers in an insane clown posse of laughably bad films like "Stop-Loss," "In the Valley of Elah," "Lions for Lambs," "Home of the Brave" and "The Lucky Ones." To say that these relentlessly skewed movies, made by people innocent of any knowledge of the military, are flops would be an understatement: "The Lucky Ones," for instance, which starred Tim Robbins and Rachel McAdams as desperate and moronic vets on leave, last fall grossed $267,000, a figure that wouldn't even cover the cost of advertising. It was yanked from screens after a single week.
"Taking Chance," though, a work of transcendent sorrow and infinite dignity, was watched by two million viewers on its first HBO showing last Saturday, the best figure for an HBO original movie in five years. Though the violent death of a serviceman informs every frame, it is also a powerful statement about duty and honor as embodied in the stark face of USMC Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, nobly portrayed by Kevin Bacon with a chesty military bearing and a hidden well of resolve. The film is based on Strobl's experience escorting the remains of Phelps, who was killed in action in 2004 and who inspired Strobl to keep a journal published on blogs such as Blackfive.net.
To show the fallen as heroes is too much for some to bear. "There is surely an edge of propaganda to the unfailing grace and dignity of the process showcased in 'Taking Chance,' " snarked Ray Richmond in The Hollywood Reporter. " 'Taking Chance' is saved from patriotic sentimentality by its attention to detail and Bacon's performance," said Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times. Saved! Whew. That was a close call.
In the New York Times, Ginia Bellafante ruled that "Taking Chance" contained "a flatness that made me feel unpatriotic for being bored." She needn't worry. Finding this stately but cathartic film boring isn't unpatriotic. It's merely cloddish.
Taking the Silver Star for snark was Jeffrey Wells of the popular movie blog Hollywood Elsewhere. If you have ever served in the military, I advise you to skip the next paragraph. Especially if you are armed.
Wells says that "Taking Chance" "sells the honor and glory of combat death in a 'sensitive' way that is not only cloying but borders on the hucksterish. Which I feel is a kind of obscenity . . . It may be one of the most inspired con jobs of all time in the way it walks, talks and acts apolitical . . . and yet deep down, it's a film that will warm the cockles of Dick Cheney's heart. 'Taking Chance' is about simple sadness and dignity in the same way that Scientologists offering free stress tests are just trying to make your day go a little smoother."
Since Wells apparently scorns all "combat death," not just those in Iraq, I wonder whether he is a local pacifist as well. Maybe if there were no ceremonies to honor fallen police officers, the force would be unable to recruit new talent and disband. Then criminals, unprovoked by the presence of law enforcement, would simply disappear?
"Taking Chance" makes no case for the Iraq War. It asks merely for understanding and respect of those who sacrifice. The pain etched in Bacon's face is so profound that by the end of the film, you feel why he says, "I should have been over there. I was trained to fight. If I'm not over there, what am I?" Then he delivers his highest praise: "Those guys - guys like Chance - they're Marines."