For the past several weeks I have been receiving notices from my Marine brothers, alerting me to the airing of an HBO production entitled Taking Chance. It's first scheduled showing was Saturday evening, Feb. 21, 2009.
The film documents the true story of the journey of Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl who volunteered to escort the body of 19-year-old Marine Pfc. Chance Phelps who was killed in Iraq on April 9, 2004, home to Wyoming for burial.
The word was that Hollywood was finally about to get it right on a modern day war film.
Among my Marine brothers there has been little if any enthusiasm for the bulk of work that has come from Hollywood since the Vietnam War. There were some notable exceptions such as the television series Tour of Duty, and Mel Gibson's movie We Were Soldiers, about the 7th Cavalry's fierce yet successful battle in the Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam, in 1965.
But there have been so many movies about the military in the last 30 years, with so many of them pure rubbish, that most of my veteran friends from that era have long since despaired of ever seeing a true representation of who we are, what we do, and why. I realize that there were actors and directors who tried to get it right - Gene Hackman, Patrick Swayze, and Robert Stack - all of whom were in the POW movie Uncommon Valor come easily to mind.
But the bulk of Hollywood's efforts have been little more than a steady flow of sewage - anti-military, anti-American propaganda.
So you'll have to excuse me if I was just a tad skeptical, and took a hold-my-breath attitude. Nonetheless, the film was about Marines, and the previews looked good, so I sat down with my daughter and watched it.
My friends were right. Kevin Bacon, whose work has been eminently enjoyable going all the way back to Animal House, and including such "fun" films as Tremors, delivered one of the best performances of his career in portraying Lt. Col. Strobl. It was far easier to watch him, and his role was far more believable with this portrayal, than with the heavily political A Few Good Men back in 1992.
In essence, the film relates how Strobl, a decorated veteran of Operation Desert Storm, The Gulf War, is dealing with a form of guilt brought on by his near-permanent desk job as a Pentagon analyst, while so many other one-tour as well as career Marines are serving multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Strobl ultimately volunteers to escort Phelps' body back home for burial, initially because he believes that he and Phelps came from the same hometown in Colorado. It turns out that Phelps actually was born in Wyoming, but enlisted in Colorado, so Strobl's journey goes much further, with stops as far north as Montana before the final leg of the journey.
I was more than a little bit pleased to see that other than a few passing notices such as a newspaper headline, and a conversation with a young hearse driver who wanted to contribute but didn't understand why we were in Iraq, the political ramifications of the past 8 years did not sully this film.
Actually, Taking Chance was as much about the people of middle America, as it was about the fallen Marine or his escort. And it definitely showcases the care, concern for detail, and even tenderness, with which America's fallen military personal are treated all the way from the battlefield to the giant morgue in Dover, Delaware where their bodies and personal effects are prepared for burial.
Strobl kept a journal of his travel, from which the screenplay is derived, and it is full of notations of the small, but ever so meaningful gestures from everyday Americans. An airlines ticket agent upgrading Strobl to first class, a flight attendant giving him a crucifix, baggage handlers and deplaning passengers stopping in reverence as the casket is moved from plane to plane, with Strobl rendering honors at each stop.
My favorite scene was on the way from Montana to Wyoming, as a convoy of vehicles, carrying everyday Americans who just happened to be going the same way, lined up with the hearse carrying Phelps' body, all with their lights on. Strobl, driving directly behind the hearse suddenly finds himself with a large and caring entourage.
I told my daughter that I had witnessed such a phenomenon a few times previously, and even was part of one such procession when I went to Memphis two decades ago to attend the funeral of a friend and mentor from my days in Vietnam.
But while such respect for fallen members of our nation's military is common in the south and west, it is nearly unheard of here in the Northeast. In this part of the country the elitist and entitlement mindsets are so ingrained in the culture that a simple gesture of public respect isn't even considered, much less rendered.
I have read that the attendance at Phelps' funeral was greater than the population of Dubois - that's Due Boy - Wyoming, which had slightly fewer than 1,000 residents as of the 2000 census. That in itself tells us about the priorities of many Americans who don't spend their lives making asses of themselves to garner a few headlines.
I was happy to see that Taking Chance gave considerable positive credit to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Marine Corps League organizations, both of which were showcased in the latter portion of the film. It even gave us a positive portrayal of a Vietnam veteran, Chance Phelps' father, who places his Vietnam Service and Vietnam Campaign medals on his son's coffin.
All in all, HBO, Kevin Bacon, a large and competent supporting cast, and Michael Strobl himself, did in this one film what should have and could have been done for two generations of American veterans - but more often was not.
I suppose it is too much to hope for that maybe, just maybe, someone in Hollywoodland will see this film and realize that it represents what exists in a place called America, where there are real heroes, living and dead, doing the right thing for no other reason than it is the right thing to do.
Sunday, February 22, 2009