Taking Chance

in his review/essay “Is there intelligent life on television?,” Professor Paul Cantor makes the case that much of the best comedic and dramatic writing today is on television. He observes that in Hollywood television has become known as a writer’s medium.

“Taking Chance” appears tonight on HBO and appears to illustrate Professor Cantor’s thesis. The film is based on the journal kept by Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl as he escorted the body body of a Marine who had been killed in Iraq. The Chicago Tribune published Col. Strobl’s recollections of the journey on its one-year anniversary in “Taking Chance.” Col. Strobl’s account opens: “Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn’t know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him.” Blackfive fairly characterized Stobl’s account as being about “Valor, Honor and Respect.”

Dorothy Rabinowitz reviewed the HBO film in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. She writes:

It was impossible to imagine, beforehand, all the ways a film like “Taking Chance” (Saturday, 8-9:30 p.m. EST, on HBO) could work its power. There are no conflicts, no warring sides, no mysteries of character — the usual stuff of drama. The story’s outcome is clear from the beginning. Yet it’s no less clear that “Taking Chance” is not only high drama, but a kind that is, in the most literal way, breathtaking — watching parts of it can make breathing an effort, and those parts come at every turn. It’s no less obvious that this film, about a Marine killed in combat, could have gone wrong in all sorts of ways and did so in none of them. There is in this work, at once so crushing and exhilarating, not a false note.

The credit for that belongs to Lt. Col. Michael Stroble, U.S. Marine Corps, on whose journal the film is based; to producer, writer and director Ross Katz; and, not least, to Kevin Bacon, whose portrayal of the devoted Col. Stroble is a masterwork — flawless in its fierce economy, eloquent in its testimony, most of it wordless, to everything that is going on.

And that is a great deal. The process by which the remains of a fallen Marine are prepared and shipped is exquisitely detailed — details the film spills out at its own quietly riveting pace. All servicemen who have died are provided a uniformed escort home to their final resting places. The colonel — a Desert Storm veteran who is impelled, for reasons made known later in the film, to escort the remains of 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps, killed in Iraq in 2004 — must accompany the body from the Dover Air Force Base mortuary to the lance corporal’s burial place in Dubois, Wyo.

It’s a long trip. Everywhere along the way, he encounters Americans of every age, class and occupation who are transfixed once they understand they are in the presence of a military escort officer taking a serviceman home. That presence is enough. They don’t need the sight of the flag-draped casket. All that they feel they show this uniformed officer, the stand-in for their dead fellow American, for his family, for the funeral service they can’t get to — and the recipient of their grief and regard.

HBO has set up an excellent site on the film with trailers, interviews and related material here.

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