Final Trip

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A brilliant little movie produced by HBO Films and shown briefly in theaters is now available for rent or purchase. “Taking Chance” is a fascinating kind of war movie, one well worth viewing.

Actually, let me retract the descriptor “war movie.” Of course, “war movie” denotes a movie about a war – typically, a movie that shows a battle or the events that lead up to one. Many classics come to mind – “Midway,” “The Longest Day,” “The Great Raid,” “Tora, Tora, Tara.” However, the phrase usually connotes specifically pro-war movies, such as the innumerable John Wayne WWII flicks, which portray war as heroic and good. By contrast, we often use the phrase “anti-war movie” to refer to films that place war in an unfavorable light. I’m think- ing of such classics as “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Grand Illusion.”

But no, “Taking Chance” is conspicuously neither pro-war not antiwar. It is a pro-person movie, showing respect for the people who serve in the military. The story is, apparently, very simple. Based on real events, it recounts the return of the body of a young Marine, 19-year-old Chance Phelps, to his family for burial. The protagonist is Lt. Col. Mike Strobl (Kevin Bacon), a Marine officer who volunteers for the duty of accompanying the body of Chance, who has died in the Iraq war defending his fellow soldiers.

The story demonstrates the respect with which the Marine Corps handles its fallen warriors, from the people assigned the dolorous duty of cleaning the remains and restoring the uniforms of the fallen, to the soldiers who accompany their dead comrades home. It is also about the respect that the ordinary citizens whom Strobl encounters on his journey show towards Chance.

These ordinary folk include people at the airport, people in the plane carrying the young man home, the baggage handlers loading and unloading the casket, and a volunteer who drives Strobl to the airport, explaining that while he himself opposed the Iraq war, he wanted to help the armed services in some way. Strobl is amazed and heartened by the support his presence spontaneously evokes.

I said earlier that the story is simple, on the surface. A more intricate, underlying story concerns Strobl himself. We come to understand why he volunteered for the duty of taking Chance home and see how he grapples with some complex personal feelings.

The cinematography is excellent, especially the photography of the area around Dubois, Wyoming, Chance’s hometown. And the acting is amazingly good, particularly when one considers that the supporting cast does not contain many well-known actors, and indeed contains some who are not professional actors at all. Yet the supporting cast performs flawlessly, with exceptional performances by Tom Aldredge as Charlie Fitts and Tom Wopat as John Phelps.

But I was astounded by Kevin Bacon’s performance. I’ve seen Bacon in numerous films, starting with the great comedy “Animal House,” and I’ve always enjoyed his work. Yet I’ve never seen him as riveting as he is in this film. He puts in a beautifully restrained but deeply affecting performance, one just perfect for the character of Strobl. My feeling was similar to the one that I had when I watched Tom Selleck play Eisenhower in “Ike: Countdown to D-Day” (A&E, 2004). Again, I saw an actor I had long enjoyed demonstrate a level of mastery of his craft that I was unaware he had.

I found this movie profoundly moving, and while it got little publicity when it first appeared, it is definitely worth searching out and viewing.

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