is a small story.
The thing is, small stories are the ones that work their way in underneath the armor. They're the ones that slide silently in through the cracks under the doors. When we wake up, sometimes in the night, it's the small stories that have been whispering into our ears during our most vulnerable moments.
Taking Chance is one of those small stories.
At base, it's very simple, and it hews closely to true events. In 2004, a 19-year-old Marine named Chance Phelps was killed in action on Good Friday while defending a convoy under attack in Iraq. We are not shown these events, although we hear them - even before the opening credits, we hear the attack take place behind a completely black screen. The first action we see is two Marines, in dress uniforms, arriving late at night at a rural home to knock on the door.
Then Chance Phelps begins his journey home, from the sands of Iraq to Ramstein AFB in Germany; to Dover AFB and the Dover Mortuary.
All United States military personnel killed in action are brought home to their families by the government, both via government transport and funding and most importantly via the person of a member of their service, who will escort their remains from the mortuary in the U.S. to their homes for burial. Their remains must be treated with dignity and honor; they must be saluted whenever they board or debark transport, and must be accompanied at all times in transit by their escorts. As The Debutante reminds me, the Hebrew for 'funeral' is leyovah - 'to accompany.'
In 2004, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel named Michael Strobl, on an office rotation at Quantico, saw that an incoming KIA was from his hometown in Colorado and volunteered to escort him home. Although it turned out that Chance Phelps was going instead to Dubois, Montana where he was raised, Strobl took him home. He had never served as a military escort before. Along the way, he came face to face with something that the cynical among us would claim no longer exists - the loyalty, devotion, gratitude and respect of the American people for those who serve in their military. The story, which is merely that of PFC Phelps' Colonel Strobl's trip to Montana, is made up of spontaneous moments. While Strobl slowly salutes from the tarmac while Chance is loaded into an airliner's cargo hold, all the baggage handlers in the area stop what they are doing, move over to the conveyor, remove hats or place their hands over their hearts, and silently bear witness. When the coffin has entered the aircraft, they quietly go about their business.
A flight attendant presses her cross into Strobl's palm while he's aboard, saying only 'I want you to have this.' People, especially those working for the airlines, airports, and shipping industry - they all know why Strobl is here, and what he is doing. Regular Americans know, or learn, as he and Chance move quietly through their lives.
While Chance's hearse, followed by Strobl in a rental car, makes its way along an isolated Wyoming highway, a semitrailer passing sees the contents of the hearse. Flicking on its headlights, the truck takes up a position just in front of the hearse and maintains it. Several cars, passing, also turn on their headlights and fall into a closely-positioned line ahead of and behind the hearse, escorting. They turn away eventually, lights still on, as their paths diverge.
Reaching Dubois, Strobl meets a young Corporal who was with Chance when he died - and we finally hear the tale over beers in the VFW post the night before the funeral.
The funeral is closed casket. We never see Chance's face; he is present in several scenes where we watch the 'angels' of Dover Mortuary respectfully and gently preparing him for his trip home. We see his uniformed legs and torso at one point - and after the film ends, we see several photographs and home videos of the real Chance Phelps. To me, however, Chance Phelps was a concept in a coffin, moving across the United States, slowly but surely making his way home to rest. As Strobl says at one point: "So long as he was moving, it felt like he was still alive, in a way. I watched them carry him the last fifteen yards, and now he's stopped. I didn't know Chance Phelps until today, and now I miss him."
After several aborted attempts to fill out his 'trip report,' Col. Strobl eventually crosses out the heading and at the top of the page which now contains his observations and recollections of these events, writes 'Taking Chance.' His journal would be posted (with his permission) on a website, where it garnered the attention and comments of hundreds.
He would later go on to write the screenplay to this film.
Kevin Bacon plays Col. Strobl with excellent understatement. He is not the star of this story, and he knows it - but he is the witness who brings the story to us. His emotional responses cue but do not override those of the audience. Bacon manages to bring together all those parts of Strobl that we need, and to leave out those that we don't and which are, in fact, the property of the still-living man himself.
This is not a happy movie. But it is a very, very moving one. Hollywood tends to usually treat the military with a mixture of awe, contempt and exploitative greed most of the time. Here, HBO Films has made a movie that shows us what the military really is - it's people, just like us, who are witness to and bearers of particular burdens. The U.S. Military, which at the time was not permitting photography of casualties arriving in the U.S., nevertheless assisted a great deal with the filming - a sign that the respect the film displays was acknowledged.
It's a small story.
But it's one you won't forget.
Taking Chance (2009)
Director: Ross Katz
Writers: Ross Katz and Michael Strobl
Production Company: HBO Films
Lt. Col. Michael Strobl - Kevin Bacon
Corporal Arenz - Enver Gjokaj
Charlie Fitts - Tom Aldredge