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Sundance Film Festival 2009: Taking No Chances

Sundance Film Festival 2009: Taking No Chances

Those

searching for signs of how leaner economic times are being felt at

Sundance 2009 need look no further than the fact that the festival's

opening weekend yielded only one major sale -- and that one was

something of a foregone conclusion. Although the tepid reaction to

director Antoine Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest

from critics and audiences alike led upstart Senator Entertainment

(which paid a reported $5 million for the North American distribution

rights) to immediately start calling the film a "work in progress," you

had to figure that if a cop drama from the director of Training Day,

starring Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke, couldn't close a deal at

Sundance this year, it really was going to be a long 10 days in the

snow.

Meanwhile, one of the best films to premiere thus far in

the festival's dramatic competition isn't even seeking a theatrical

deal, but will go straight from Sundance to HBO in a little over one

month's time. The movie is called Taking Chance

and it would, admittedly, be a tough sell to moviegoers even in a boom

market. Based on the journal kept by now-retired Marine Lieutenant

Colonel Michael R. Strobl as he escorted the body of a decorated PFC

killed in Iraq back to his family, Taking Chance has the double

misfortune of arriving at a moment when the industry has reached an

undeniable state of Middle East fatigue. "If they even see 'Asalaam

alaikum' on the page, they close the script," one well-known Hollywood

screenwriter recently told me, citing as an example a spec script he

had recently sold, then been asked to rewrite so as to remove any

reference to Iraq, Afghanistan or Islam. The box-office implosion of

Ridley Scott's recent Body of Lies

seems to have been the straw that broke this particular camel's back,

but even many smaller, more indie-flavored dramas and documentaries

about America's Middle East misadventures have been greeted with

similar audience apathy.

Sundance Film Festival 2009: Taking No Chances

I myself came with some degree of trepidation to Taking Chance,

which on paper sounds like an unholy marriage of two recent films that

tried and failed to effectively dramatize the homefront impact of the

Iraq campaign: the vomitously maudlin Grace Is Gone

(in which John Cusack shilled shamelessly for an Oscar as a father

hiding the death of his Marine wife from his two young daughters) and

the Paul Haggis-ed In the Valley of Elah (in which Tommy Lee

Jones' Iraq vet son turns up dead and Jones responds by hanging an

American flag upside-down). Then there's that too-clever-by-half title,

Taking Chance -- because, you know, the fallen Marine's name was

Chance and he's being taken home. And yet, this is an Iraq movie that

consistently defies your expectations, and then exceeds them.

The directorial debut of the veteran indie producer Ross Katz (whose credits include In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation), Taking Chance

announces early on that its intentions are of a procedural (rather than

polemical) nature. The film begins on a black screen, while the

soundtrack illustrates the Mahmoudiyah IED attack that leaves PFC

Chance Phelps among its casualties. Katz then goes on to document the

preparation and transportation of Phelps' body as it is packed into ice

on the landing strip of a German air base, flown to the mortuary at

Dover Air Force Base, x-rayed for explosives, vacuumed of moisture,

cleansed (along with Phelps' personal belongings) of dried blood and

finally prepared for burial. No detail is too small or insignificant

for Katz -- one scene depicts the tailoring of new uniforms for the

dead. All of it is filmed with a stark, clinical intensity that

suggests this is work performed day in and day out, over and over again.

For

many filmmakers, the default inclination would be to bring us as close

as possible to Phelps, whether by way of flashbacks or testimonials --

to put an individual face on what might otherwise seem just another

flag-draped casket. But it speaks to the tact, simplicity and

intelligence of Katz's approach that he elects to keep Phelps a largely

abstract figure -- or, rather, a representative one, of all those men

and women who fight and die for our country, regardless of whether we

approve of the conflict in which they fight.

It's hard, I

think, for a movie to engender much respect for the U.S. Military these

days, let alone convince you of the fundamental goodness of people, but

Taking Chance manages to do both precisely by not trying too

hard to do either. Katz's film is, at heart, a classically structured

road movie that begins in the suburban homes and corporate military

offices of Quantico, Virginia and gradually winds its way to the

wide-open spaces of Wyoming. In between, Strobl (who is played in the

film by Kevin Bacon) encounters ordinary citizens who disarm him -- and

us -- with their quiet kindness and dignity: the flight attendant who

gives Strobl her crucifix; the pilot who tells him he can remember the

name of every killed-in-action soldier he has ever transported; and the

old Korean War vet (a superb Tom Aldredge) who invokes a bygone era's

sense of honor and duty. By that point in the film, we seem to have

traveled not merely West, but back in time -- a feeling capped by a

country funeral that Katz stages as though it were an outtake from My Darling Clementine.

Taking Chance

isn't always as good as that. Like many first-time directors, Katz has

a tendency to use original music as an emotional crutch, and his

subtle, tasteful direction occasionally verges on being too discrete

for its own good. Still, Katz has made one of the few Iraq movies that,

along with Brian De Palma's Redacted, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and parts of Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss,

feels vital to our celluloid record of this seismic moment in American

history. He has also created an extraordinary showcase for Bacon, who

is the sort of actor audiences get in the habit of taking for granted

(he has never been nominated for an Oscar) because he is so

consistently good and so rarely self-aggrandizing. Here, his largely

nonverbal performance consists of a rigid military posture and a face

that is a remarkable palimpsest of grief and the impotent rage Strobl

(a Desert Storm vet) feels at having passed up his chance at a second

tour of duty.

This is a movie to see, whether on large screens

or small. That most people will only be able to experience it the

latter way is unfortunate, yet entirely understandable, given that

theatrical distribution -- for all but the biggest Hollywood

blockbusters -- has now devolved into a loss leader for DVD sales and

cable broadcast. So it's not all that surprising that HBO Films, which

had a modest theatrical success in 2002 with Real Women Have Curves and another one the following year with American Splendor, set a February 21 broadcast date for Taking Chance

before Sundance even began. Factor in the day-and-date cable/theatrical

models already being embraced by IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures and we

may well be entering the era in which the true success of indie movies

will be measured not in ticket sales but rather in TiVo downloads.

Happy viewing.