I was wondering about Chance Phelps. I didn’t know anything about him; not even what he looked like. I wondered about his family and what it would be like to meet them. I did pushups in my room until I couldn’t do any more.
You don’t see Chance Phelps die. Instead, you watch a black screen under radio reports of a “suspicious vehicle,” an explosion, and then shooting — lots of shooting. Phelps dies in Iraq, where, you learn later, he is carried by six comrades following this unseen attack. You do see, in HBO’s Taking Chance, his body prepared for transport: the blood is washed off his St. Christopher medal, his fingers are wiped clean, and his toe is tagged with a bar-code.
And as he begins his journey home, Chance Phelps becomes “remains.” Not to his family and friends, certainly, and not to the marines who honor his service and memory. But for the record, for the purposes of shipping and delivery, he is no longer a person, but material, treated with respect and some sense of sorrow. The primary embodiment of this process is Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon).
An analyst at Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Strobl keeps track of numbers — how many troops are deployed, how many lost, how many replacements. He first appears in Taking Chance at work, making a presentation in an office in Virginia. When he’s done, an officer asks whether he’s been in Iraq since 9/11. No, Strobl has a desk job, after service in Desert Storm. But he worries, he tells an associate in the locker room afterwards — framed by tall red metal lockers — that he’s “losing focus on what really matters.” Sometimes, he adds, “I wish I was over there.” The other man offers what would seem to be sage advice, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Instead of going “over there,” Strobl volunteers for what seems like less hazardous duty, to escort Lance Corporal Phelps’ body home, from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to a small town in Wyoming. Based on the real Strobl’s experience, the journey is long and careful, each stage of the coffin’s movement part of a ritual, both austere and elaborate. Surely, as the film indicates, this ritual displays the reverence for Phelps’ and other troops’ service, as well as the transition now facing survivors, as they must learn how to miss and honor their lost son, brother, or fellow.
Walking a thin line between sober and sentimental, Taking Chance is most effective as it observes Bacon’s face. Reacting to events on and off screen, he expresses the complex mix of feeling and thinking that goes into grief, order, and explanation. While Strobl begins his journey with Chance out of gilt, an effort to understand better what he is writing in files and calculating on ledgers, he comes to an appreciation of the more dire costs of war.
This isn’t to say that Taking Chance is an anti-war film in any conventional sense. It is too observant of military ceremony to slide easily into that or another category. But it raises real questions about the meanings of service — abstract and specific. That it does so without damning the war in Iraq per se has more to do with its respect for “those who serve,” than with any particular politics.
And that isn’t to say the film is apolitical. It features several instances where characters speak for various familiar “positions,” such as the morgue attendant who tells Strobl as he departs with the remains (deemed unfit for viewing at the funeral service, despite the work done on it), “It has been my privilege to care for him, sir.” Or, the young driver who explains that he’s not enlisted in part because he doesn’t I “really get what we’re doing over there,” and in part because of “the haircut thing,” as he’s in a band and has to keep his hair long “for the ladies.”
When the kid asks Strobl about his own “deal,” the colonel’s answer is concise and tellingly indirect. “My deal is complicated,” he says. “All I wanted was to be a marine.” Embedded in that seemingly bland self-assessment are years of hopes and layers of family, suppressions and ambitions. You never learn much about Strobl, except that he has a supportive wife (Paige Turco), who wonders why he’s requested this particular assignment, beyond the fact that he believes — based on the paperwork — Phelps is from his own hometown. When he finds that the body is headed elsewhere, the foundation and meaning of the work changes for Strobl, though he never articulates exactly how, and the film doesn’t press him into an obvious arc or heavy-handed emotional climax. Why he wanted to be a marine is not made clear, but in his desire, he represents many patriots for whom reasons are too intricate to reduce to words.
Whether he’s dealing with an airport security worker who insists he remove his dress jacket and place Phelps’ persona effects on the x-ray belt, or a young woman on the plane who texts a friend that she’s sitting next to a “hot soldier,” Strobl is gracious but also firm. He tells the TSA worker he won’t “denigrate” his jacket by removing it, and corrects the girl (he’s a marine, not a soldier), and he maintains his composure when meeting with another military escort, a young man who is accompanying his own brother back home for burial. Strobl encounters a range of reactions — to him but also, differently, to his mission, if that becomes clear — each instructional in its way. Drawn from Strobl’s journal, the film is occasionally episodic, but that in itself makes a point: the only way to comprehend, or at least manage death under such circumstances is to go through the steps.