Watching HBO’s Taking Chance, my mind drifts back to a letter written by Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman addressed to the mayor and council members of Atlanta, Georgia before his army razed the city to the ground during the American Civil War. “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will,” he wrote, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” The families of fallen soldiers know this reality all too well and while network news stations are content with lumping together individual soldiers’ deaths into one nameless and faceless body count, the journey of the slain continues in untold stories as the bodies are returned home. Taking Chance is one such story based on real events.
Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon) is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corp currently serving another office tour. By day, he analyzes the war effort in Iraq and makes recommendations on how best to support it. By night, he obsessively checks the casualty lists for names he might recognize. One night he stumbles on Private First Class Chance Phelps who was killed in action in Iraq when his convoy was ambushed by insurgents. As per Department of Defense policy, when a serviceman dies he or she is provided a uniformed escort to ensure that the remains are treated with respect and reach their final resting place safely. Having grown up in the same hometown, Strobl feels a faint connection with Phelps, so he volunteers for escort duty.
Taking Chance is a very straightforward film with no real arc or dramatic conflict. Almost the entirety of the film is focused on Strobl’s experience with the random people who accompany – and sometimes impede – him on his journey. As such, viewers may find themselves wanting something unexpected to happen, but it will never come. This is unfortunate because the vignettes with the strangers are so brief there isn’t much to hang onto after they exit. It is, however, refreshing to see civilians show such respect for a fallen marine. They take their hats off or hold their hands over their hearts when the remains are loaded and unloaded from planes. They give personal tokens and well-wishes to Strobl to pass on to the Phelps family. It’s heartwarming, but at the same time it also seems contrived and unrealistic. With so much anti-war sentiment, one might imagine that Strobl would run into at least one argument with a person over the war. Instead, even when someone does proffer half-hearted criticism, he ends the conversation with heartfelt thoughts for the family of the departed. Still, if this is the way it happened in real life, who can argue with the believability of reality?
Kevin Bacon makes the most out of his role, but aside from a few blips, Bacon doesn’t get a lot of time to act. He spends most of the film maintaining his military discipline and saluting in slow motion. The few moments where he’s overcome by emotion are, of course, thoroughly natural and what one would expect from Bacon. A few more scenes written with these opportunities in mind would have been nice.
Surprisingly, Taking Chance only marginally makes overt political statements about the Iraq war, commenting more on the handling of it rather than the war itself. In the end, this was a wise choice since anything more scathing would have been in bad taste and taken away from the solemnity of the occasion. Taking Chance doesn’t answer “why.” It answers “how.” While “why” might be the more important question, “how” is the only one that has answers most can agree on.