This isn’t a movie review. It’s just me rambling as I continue to consider the film I watched last night.
Taking Chance was but one on a stack of DVD’s I’ve purchased over the past couple of months, but until recently haven’t had time to watch. I knew it was a film I was going to want to watch, rather than simply let play in the background while I tended to other things. I also knew that watching it would bring back memories I had not revisited in quite some time, and to be honest I was reluctant to go down that road. So, on the stack of DVDs it sat, waiting for me to have an evening where I could dedicate my full attention to it.
Last night was the night.
I spent a good bit of time after the film concluded just sorting out what I’d watched, trying to make sense of the chaotic blur of memories as well as scenes from the film which were rushing around and past each other in my head. Beyond simply laughing at a joke, smiling or throwing out the occasional “Yeah!” at cool action, or flinching when something intense or even scary happens, it’s a rare occasion for me to have any sort of true emotional reaction to a movie.
Simply put, Taking Chance knocked me on my ass.
It’s not a war movie, nor a military propaganda piece. Based on actual events, it’s simply the story of one young man and the impact he made on those around him, in death as well as throughout his all-too brief life. The story focuses on Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl (as portrayed by Kevin Bacon), a Marine officer stationed at Quantico in 2004 who volunteers to escort home the remains of Private First Class Chance Phelps, a young Marine killed in Iraq. Strobl is at first drawn to Phelps upon learning they both hail from the same town in Colorado. Though he’s later told Phelps will be transported to Dubois, Wyoming, because that’s where his family resides, Strobl still opts to act as the fallen Marine’s escort. The balance of the film covers Strobl’s journey from the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Dubois, accompanying the casket containing Phelps’ remains every step of the way.
I’ve performed escort duty, so I can attest to the care — even reverence — with which the body of a fallen service member is handled throughout the process of preparing the remains for transport home. No detail is overlooked, no task performed in perfunctory fashion. It is a solemn undertaking, carried out with precision and respect. In this and many other areas, the film’s accuracy is to be praised.
The scenes depicting PFC Phelps’ journey were difficult to watch. Unlike LtCol Strobl, I knew the Marine I escorted; he was one of mine. I got the call about his death on Easter Sunday in 1996, and I spent the next eight days inventorying his personal effects, overseeing every aspect of the preparations to take him home, and accompanying his casket. Except for the actual flight, I spent every moment of the journey from Kansas City to his home town in arm’s reach of his casket, to include sitting with it in a cargo hangar at the airport. I spent three days with his family and friends, listening to their stories and attending his funeral. I was struck by how loved and respected he was by the countless people I encountered. Everyone treated me as well as you might expect, given the circumstances, but the sad reality was that I was a stranger in their midst, and I had brought tragedy with me. It was one of the most emotionally-taxing experiences of my life, and it naturally was nothing compared to what the family was enduring.
As I watched the movie, I couldn’t stop those recollections from coming forth, but it wasn’t until I got to the scenes of Strobl standing vigil alongside Phelps’ casket that they all just seemed to push forward and hammer at me. I had to pause the film more than once and just sit there, processing long-dormant memories. Easter never passes without me pausing to remember the young Marine (I do the same thing on Halloween, owing to an unrelated yet similarly tragic incident involving another Marine), though this was something I hadn’t really pondered for years. In my head, it was 1996 again, and I had just returned home, drained from the heart-wrenching duty I’d completed.
It may well be the oddest damned thing that’s ever happened to me while watching a movie; the closest thing to a “flashback” I’ve experienced. When it was over, I just let the thoughts and memories roam at will, sorting themselves out. This blog entry was originally going to be about something completely unrelated to the movie or my reactions, but once I started typing it all just came out.
Thanks very much for your indulgence.