Veterans Day Special: Review 65: Taking Chance (5/5)

Taking Chance

Directed by Ross Katz

Starring Kevin Bacon

Released on January 16, 2009

Running time: 1h 17m

Not Rated (Suggested rating: PG for some language and thematic elements)

Genre: Drama, Historical

During Operation Iraqi Freedom in April 9, 2004, outside Ar Ramadi, Iraq, a USMC unit was conducting convoy escort when they came under heavy fire by terrorists. Private First Class Chance Phelps refused to be evacuated, manning his M240 or M2 .50 caliber machine gun to cover the evacuation of the rest of his convoy. He was fatally shot in the head, posthumously being promoted to Lance Corporal. His body was brought home. Upon learning of Phelps’s death, and discovering that Phelps’s hometown was near his own hometown, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, who had previously served in Desert Storm, volunteered to escort Phelps’s body home. Phelps was buried in Dubois, Wyoming on April 17. Phelps’s parents, stepparents, sister, the Chief of Naval Intelligence (Phelps’s sister was the Chief’s aide), and every veterans’ organization within ninety miles was present. LtCol Strobl detailed his experiences as well as his own soul-searching journey in his article, “A Marine’s Journey Home”, also known as “Taking Chance”. You can read the article here. It’s a powerful, emotional story.

http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/A-Marine-s-journey-home-2762679.php

In 2009, LtCol Strobl and Ross Katz wrote the script for a movie based on Strobl’s article. Kevin Bacon was cast as LtCol Strobl himself. The movie was titled Taking Chance.

And it was one of the most emotionally gripping but simple experiences I have ever seen put to film.

The film begins on a black screen, with radio chatter and sounds of explosions and gunfire, with the radio then saying, “Phelps is down.” Cut to two Marines going to an unmarked house in the middle of the night and knocking on the door. We see a montage of the Marines taking his and other bodies home, and treating them with utmost respect. Their bodies are taken to a special mortuary to be cleaned and dressed.

We transition to LtCol Michael Strobl (Bacon), who is a “numbers cruncher in a cubicle”, who spends time with his family, and, every night, checks the casualty reports on Operation Iraqi Freedom. One night, he notices that Private First Class Chance Phelps has been killed in action, and that he hails from a hometown near Strobl’s own. He volunteers to escort Phelps’s body home.

Strobl learns more about Phelps from Phelps’s personal effects: a wooden cross on a string, a St. Christopher pendant, a wristwatch with a little blood permanently on it, and Phelps’s dog tags. Strobl is told that Phelps’s effects are not to leave Strobl’s side under any circumstances.

After verifying that it is indeed Phelps’s body, Strobl, accompanied by driver Rich Brewer (John Magaro), drive away from the mortuary to the Philadelphia airport.

I must mention that with every body transported from the mortuary that day, some construction workers stop their work to place their hard hats over their hearts with every transport that drives past.

Rich talks to Strobl as they drive to the airport. While Rich is against the war and has lost a friend in Iraq, he holds nothing but respect for our armed forces. When the two arrive at the airport, the two render honors to Phelps as he is unloaded.

At the ticketing counter, the ticketing agent expresses to Strobl her sympathy for the family and her thanks for Strobl’s service, and upgrades Strobl’s ticket to first class. Strobl, the workers on the tarmac, and the flight crew render honors to Phelps as he is loaded onto the airplane. About forty-five minutes into the flight, the first class flight attendant gives Strobl her small gold (silver in the movie) crucifix. Honors are rendered to Phelps as he is unloaded off the plane in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After Strobl comes across an Army sergeant escorting his dead brother home, the two render honors to the sergeant’s brother as he is loaded onto the plane.

As honors are rendered as Phelps is loaded onto another plane the next morning, Strobl encounters the pilot, who is a retired Air Force officer who served in the First Persian Gulf War. On the way from Minneapolis to Billings, Montana, Strobl meets a young woman who is glad to meet a Marine. When the plane lands, and the pilot announces that they’ve been carrying Phelps’s body, the passengers and Strobl exit the plane, rendering honors as Phelps’s body is unloaded off the plane. The young woman from earlier in particular is visibly affected.

Strobl meets the funeral director, and they load Phelps’s casket into a hearse for the final part of the journey to Dubois, Wyoming. Along the way, a series of cars turn on their headlights in respect, and form an impromptu funeral procession.

Upon arrival at Dubois, Strobl is greeted by a fellow Marine, one of the two who had told the Phelps family of Chance’s death. Strobl and the Marine place some personal items into the casket and make sure that Phelps’s uniform is squared away, noting his Purple Heart.

That night, a memorial event is held at the local VFW. The local veterans and others, including Phelps’s sergeant who was with him when he was killed, welcome Strobl with gratitude for bringing Chance home. They reminisce about Phelps’s outgoing and energetic personality and some war stories of theirs, including the manner in which Phelps died. As the veterans leave that night, Strobl talks with a Marine who served in Korea, saying that he is ashamed of his office duties when he should be in combat. The Korea vet kindly reprimands him, telling him that he is no less of a Marine than Phelps was, and that he is now responsible for the final part of Phelps’s legacy.

The next morning, Strobl meets Phelps’s family, giving them the personal effects and mentioning that Phelps was treated with great care and dignity across his final journey. Strobl even gives them the crucifix from earlier, realizing that it was given to Phelps rather than him.

The funeral had a surprisingly high number of military servicemen and women in attendance. Phelps was given full military honors.

During the final procession to the cemetery, all the flags are posted at half mast, and a troop of local Boy Scouts hold large flags.

Honors are rendered as Phelps’s casket is removed. Phelps’s divorced parents are each presented with a flag. The attendees all pay their respects, and Strobl, the final man left at the ceremony, renders honors for the final time.

On his way home, Strobl reminisces about his experience, saying that though he did not know Lance Corporal Chance Phelps before he died, somehow, after escorting him home and putting him to rest, he misses him. Strobl returns home, reuniting with his wife and children. The film ends with a shot of the mailbox outside the house from the beginning, labeled “Phelps”.

It’s no secret that I love our armed forces with all my heart. I have nothing in my heart but respect for them, the service that they performed, and the lives they gave. It doesn’t matter whether or not you supported Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is simply about respect for not necessarily our military leaders, but for each individual soldier that puts his or her life on the line for America and her people, and the emotion in the funeral procedures for our fallen brothers and sisters.

Taking Chance, to me, is not just about our armed forces and the procedures they go through when killed in action and returned home. It’s also about my hope for humanity and this film’s honesty in reflecting the heart and pride of America.

In fact, a recurring theme in Taking Chance is that it’s all about the little things in life. Kind words. Small gifts. Pure and simple gratitude.

And it was this theme that made my eyes constantly wet throughout the entire movie.

It wasn’t just this that made me cry.

Taking Chance was unique in how we never meet our titular character, but, by the end, we cry for him.

And it was no surprise to me that what made this movie so poignant was the fact that these events actually happened.

Even when you look at it as just a movie, all of the aforementioned factors still make the overall product work. I will not, and have no reason to, complain about the strong, coherent story and script. Each individual character receives more development in just a few minutes than I’ve seen in many other movies with us knowing the characters for an hour or more and still not knowing anything about them. Every scene is filled to the brim with raw emotional power that still manages to be subtle. There is no room for over-the-top acting here, as all of it is well done in its restraint.

I am happy to say that Taking Chance is as close to perfect as films like it get.

God bless every one of our brothers and sisters that have served or are currently serving in our armed forces, and God bless us to be as ready, willing, and able as ever to welcome them home with open arms.

God rest the soul of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, and may he be granted a long, happy eternity in Paradise.

Excuse me as I go grab my bugle to play “Taps” and my bagpipes to play “Amazing Grace.”

Happy Veterans Day. Semper fidelis.

Final verdict: 5 out of 5 stars.

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