“I have kept a diary or a journal on three occasions,” says Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, USMC (Ret.). “One was when I was deployed on a ship traveling around the western Pacific, the other was when I was in Desert Storm, and the third was with Chance.”
Chance is Chance Phelps, the 19-year-old lance corporal killed by enemy fire in 2004 in Iraq’s al-Anbar province. When Strobl, then working a desk job at Marine headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, received the news, he volunteered to serve as the military escort in charge of accompanying Phelps’ remains from Delaware’s Dover Port Mortuary to his hometown of Dubois, Wyoming.
Somewhere along the way, the “trip report” Strobl was obliged to keep evolved into a first-person memoir, Taking Chance, which is now the basis for an HBO movie of the same name, airing this weekend. The decision to write, Strobl told me last month following Taking Chance’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, was partly inspired by the reverence and respect he witnessed the Dover civilian construction workers exhibit toward each new hearse that departed the grounds. “I kind of thought there’s something special and something I didn’t expect happening here,” he says, “and I wanted to remember it.”
Taking Chance itself is similarly unexpected. Arriving at a moment when Hollywood and moviegoers seem to have reached a collective 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), Strobl’s story is less an “Iraq movie” than it is a home-front road movie that stretches from suburban Virginia to the wide-open spaces of the American West. In between, Strobl (played by Kevin Bacon) encounters many ordinary citizens like the construction workers at Dover, who disarm him — and us — with their quiet empathy: a flight attendant who gives Strobl her crucifix; a pilot who tells him he can remember the name of every killed-in-action soldier he has ever transported, and an old Korean War vet (a superb Tom Aldredge), who invokes a bygone era’s sense of honor and duty.
“To me, this is not a movie about Iraq,” Strobl says, “this is a movie about America.”
Taking Chance was enough about Iraq, however, to give Ross Katz pause when HBO first approached him about the project. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do an Iraq war movie,’” recalls Katz, a former Philadelphia DJ–turned–Oscar-nominated producer whose credits include In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation. “What could I add to the dialogue? It was 2006 — if you didn’t know where you stood on the war at that point, you were living underground.”
Then Katz read Strobl’s manuscript “and I went from zero to 60” — so much so that he decided to direct the film himself. “I remember one particular night after reading the story,” Katz says, “I turned on CNN and yet another roadside bomb had ripped through yet another Baghdad market, and I sat there and I didn’t feel anything. I was extremely angry with myself, because I thought, intellectually I know how tragic this is, but I don’t feel anything, because for years I have been seeing this 24-hour news/cyber/cell-phone footage. I walked out on the street and life was just normal. I thought, there’s a parent who just got a knock on the door, and why does everything look the same? It just didn’t add up to me, and so that was kind of my leaping-off point.”
Katz challenged himself to make a film that might resensitize viewers like himself, dulled by the steady parade of the Iraq war — something evident from Taking Chance’s opening frames, or lack thereof. The film begins with several minutes of black, while Katz uses the soundtrack to illustrate the attack that leaves Phelps among its casualties. From there, Katz shows 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 Dover mortuary, x-rayed for explosives and cleansed (along with Phelps’ personal effects) of dried blood. No detail is too small or insignificant — one scene depicts the tailoring of new uniforms for the dead. All of it is filmed with a stark, clinical precision that suggests this is work performed day in and day out, over and over again.
“I just thought,” Katz says, “that if there was some way to see how hands literally and figuratively touch these young men and women, that maybe we could feel closer to them and [realize] that they weren’t somebody else’s loss, they weren’t one family’s loss, they’re actually our loss.”
Even Strobl himself was surprised by the personal connection he developed with the fallen Marine as he accompanied him on the long journey home. “It seems strange to say even now that that would happen, because I didn’t know him, didn’t know what he looked like, didn’t know anything about him except that he was a Marine, where he was from and what his rank was. That was all I knew, but by the time we got to Wyoming, I felt very attached to him.”
Above all, Taking Chance is a superb showcase for Bacon, that reliable sideman (Mystic River, Frost/Nixon) whose last notable leading role (depending on how you rank 2007’s effectively pulpy vigilante picture Death Sentence) was as a paroled child molester in 2004’s The Woodsman.Bacon isn’t a dead ringer for the real Strobl, who’s taller, more wiry and silver-haired, but his largely nonverbal performance powerfully conveys ever subtler degrees of grief and the impotent rage Strobl felt at passing up his own chance at another tour of duty in Iraq.
“Producer’s School 101 tells me you’re not supposed to ever have a list of one — it’s a really bad idea,” Katz notes. “You get your script done. You’re thrilled that somebody might make it. You’re supposed to say, ‘Okay, we’ll take two [actors] from column A, one from column B’ — whatever combination will help you get the movie made. But I just couldn’t imagine it without Kevin. Watching him work was really amazing. We made it hard for him. He does not have a lot of dialogue in the film, and he had to show us what he was feeling without having the exposition to be able to say it.”
“I can’t imagine anyone else doing it, and for me, that’s the highest compliment I can pay an actor,” says Strobl, who speaks with something like awestruck amazement of his visit to the Taking Chance set. “I know you know this, but to me it’s unbelievable that they can shoot incredibly powerful emotional scenes out of sequence from the story and with people running around all over the place. You have to shout, ‘Quiet on the set’ 20 times before it starts to quiet down.”
So has the military vet who, since his retirement in 2007 works as a Pentagon defense analyst, been bitten by the Hollywood bug? “A little bit,” he says with a mischievous grin. “I have put pen to paper on some more stuff.”
TAKING CHANCE | HBO | Premieres on Sat., February 21, at 8 p.m.