Fallen soldier's final journey

The Baltimore Sun

HBO might have lost its way when it comes to making weekly series, but it still produces exceptional made-for-TV movies. Taking Chance, an elegiac chronicle of the final journey home for a 19-year-old Marine killed in Iraq, is one of the most eloquent and socially conscious films the premium cable channel has ever presented.

Kevin Bacon delivers a lights-out, searing performance as Michael Strobl, a tightly wrapped lieutenant colonel who escorts the remains of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps from the Dover Port Mortuary in Delaware to the home of the dead Marine's parents in Dubois, Wyo. Meanwhile, producer-writer-director Ross Katz steeps the cross-country journey in such a rich brew of distilled emotion and America iconography that at times the film feels almost too intense to bear - and that is a good thing.

Taking Chance, which premieres at 8 p.m. tomorrow, gives us the opportunity to not only bear witness but also feel in our hearts the disproportionate sacrifice some American families have made to the war in Iraq. While watching the movie might seem a fairly grim way to spend a Saturday night, it isn't. Thanks to Katz's skilled direction and Bacon's inspired performance, in the end, the film leaves you feeling uplifted - even healed. And you probably don't need me to tell you that it's a rare made-for-TV movie that has that kind of catharsis and spiritual kick.

Based on a journal kept by the real Michael Strobl, who wrote the screenplay with Katz, Taking Chance begins with an explosion in Iraq on April 9, 2004, that killed Phelps. From the opening sequence that shows his remains being packed in a box with bags of ice for the trip to Dover, the film pays scrupulous attention to the real-life details of death in the military. In so doing, it illuminates the ways in which ritual feeds and sustains the warrior culture.

The scenes of flag-draped coffins being unloaded from transport planes at Dover have a particular resonance given the real-life ban during the Bush administration on showing such images. (The policy is now under review at the request of President Barack Obama.)

Meanwhile, Strobl, who has been working at an office job at the Marine base in Quantico, Va., volunteers to travel to Dover to escort the body even though he doesn't know Chance.

Obsessive in seeing that the remains are treated with dignity and respect every inch of the way as they are loaded and off-loaded at airports, the Marine officer sleeps in an unheated storage hangar at the Minneapolis airport rather than in a hotel, so that he can keep an eye on his fallen comrade until it's time for their connecting flight to Wyoming in the morning.

At each stop on the trip, ordinary Americans, ranging from cargo handlers to truckers, go out of their way to show honor and respect to the remains of Phelps. An ad-hoc funeral procession through a mountain pass out West makes for one of the most powerful TV moments I have experienced.

Then comes the imagery of a buckboard and team of horses carrying Phelps to his grave as Boy Scouts, civilians and military veterans line a dusty stretch of road leading to the cemetery. The scene is as resonant and evocative of the American frontier spirit as anything done by big-screen director John Ford. The pictures instantly make you understand the culture that shaped Phelps into such a courageous young man.

But in the end, Strobl's words are what you remember: "Chance Phelps was wearing his St. Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday," Strobl wrote in his journal at the end of the trip. "Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn't know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him."

on tv

Taking Chance airs at 8 p.m. tomorrow on HBO.

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