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TAKING CHANCE (HBO)
(Saturday, February 21 at 8:00/7:00c)
The network's description: "In April 2004, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, USMC, came across the name of 19-year-old Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, a young Marine who had been killed by hostile fire in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. Strobl, a Desert Storm veteran with 17 years of military service, requested that he be assigned for military escort duty to accompany Chance's remains to his family in Dubois, Wyo. Witnessing the spontaneous outpouring of support and respect for the fallen Marine - from the groundskeepers he passed along the road to the cargo handlers at the airport - Strobl was moved to capture the experience in his personal journal. His first-person account, which began as an official trip report, gives an insight into the military's policy of providing a uniformed escort for all casualties. The story became an Internet phenomenon when it was widely circulated throughout the military community and eventually reached the mainstream media. 'Taking Chance' chronicles one of the silent, virtually unseen journeys that takes place every day across the country, bearing witness to the fallen and all those who, literally and figuratively, carry them home. A uniquely non-political film about the war in Iraq, the film pays tribute to all of the men and women who have given their lives in military service as well as their families. An HBO Films presentation of a Motion Picture Corporation of America and Civil Dawn Pictures production, Taking Chance marks the directorial debut of two-time Oscar�-nominated producer Ross Katz ('Lost in Translation'). The screenplay is by Lt. Col Michael R. Strobl, USMC (Ret.) and Ross Katz, based on the journal of the same name by Strobl, who also serves as military consultant. Strobl, who recently retired after serving 24 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, developed the original story with the strong support of Phelps' parents, John Phelps and Gretchen Mack. The executive producers are Brad Krevoy ('A Love Song for Bobby Long'), Cathy Wischner-Sola and Ross Katz; the co-executive producer is William Teitler (HBO's 'Empire Falls'); and the producer is Lori Keith Douglas ('The Notorious Bettie Page'). HBO Films vice president Jenni Sherwood is the executive in charge of the production."
What did they leave out? You can read Strobl's entire journal at ChancePhelps.org.
The plot in a nutshell: While spending a late night going over casualty reports from Iraq, Lt. Col. Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon) comes across the name of Chance Phelps - a young PFC killed by hostile fire from his hometown of Clifton, Colorado. Feeling compelled to do something (for reasons we'll come back to shortly), Strobl asks to serve as the body's escort - a somewhat unorthodox request due to Phelps' rank. Nevertheless he's approved and so begins Strobl's eight day journey to bring the boy's body home. Throughout Strobl's journey he stumbles across a wide variety of citizens - from an airline captain ("NYPD Blue's" Gordon Clapp) to a flirty traveler ("Angel's" Sarah Thompson) to one of Phelps' fellow servicemen ("Dollhouse's" Enver Gjokaj) - all of whom, much to his surprise, offer their own touching sign of reverence for what he's doing.
It also provides us the viewer a chance to see the military's intricate process involved in burying the fallen. Whether it be fascinating details like the how the body must always travel feet first or that their personal effects must never leave the escort's person, it ultimately reveals a procedure that's both touching and cathartic. The latter is especially true for Strobl, who's struggling with his own guilt over choosing to put in for another office tour rather than go to Iraq, all so he could stay close to his wife (Paige Turco) and family.
What works: Surprisingly restrained and never too saccharine, "Taking Chance" is a stunningly touching film that - and forgive the platitude - reminds us of the inherent nobleness that we all possess. A definite case of its-almost-too-unreal-to-be-true, "Chance" could easily be written off as pure audience manipulation. Moments like when a trucker tries to pass Strobl's SUV - only to pause after spotting the coffin to put his lights on - feel almost too pat but yet when framed by Strobl's veiled are-people-really-this-honorable-aura one can't help but be swept up by the experience. Equally showy moments like Strobl refusing to let go of Phelps's personal effects while going through airport security or insisting that he spend the night in the cargo hold so Phelps wouldn't be alone likewise could be dismissed as Emmy bait and yet again it's Strobl's own issues with the experience that bring it home.
His discussion with Rich (John Magaro), a local teen who volunteers to drive the bodies to the airport, lays it all out for us - Rich was too "chicken shit" to enlist but after watching kids from his high school come home badly injured or not come home at all, "I just wanted to do something." And like him, the film posits each of us have it in ourselves to do the same thing - even if it's just as simple as pausing for a moment on the tarmac to acknowledge the sacrifice Phelps made. It's a beautiful circle completed by the fact that those brief gestures add up to the grand moment of prayer, reverence, whatever-you-want-to-call-it that helps the families of those lost find peace. And it's Strobl's education in that lesson, even despite all his years of service, that makes this a truly special film.
What doesn't: At a brisk 77 minutes...
The bottom line: ...you really don't have an excuse not to check out this movie.