Television

Taking Chance

You don't see Chance Phelps die in Taking Chance. You do see how his body becomes meaningful for many others.

Taking Chance

Airtime: Saturday, 8pm ET
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Paige Turco, Tom Wopat, Danny Hoch
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: HBO
US release date: 2009-02-21
Website
Trailer
Amazon
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.

-- Lt. Colonel Strobl, 23 April 2004

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.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.

Books

The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.

Music

Siren Songs' Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.

Music

Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.

Music

Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.

Books

Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.

Music

Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.

Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.