Dir: Ross Katz. US. 2009. 80mins.

A heartfelt and sorrowful memorial to the war dead of Iraq marked by a typically restrained and concentrated performance by Kevin Bacon, Ross Katz’s Taking Chance is a quietly observational study of memory and loss. The fact-based story of a career military officer accompanying the remains of a fallen soldier repatriated to his hometown in the American West has moments of heartbreaking beauty and emotional power. Unfortunately as a piece of storytelling, the work is limited, even inchoate. Taking Chance is too narrowly conceived and muted and dramatically underdeveloped to register as a complete success.

Financed by HBO Films, Taking Chance premiered in the competition section at Sundance. The movie is very much of a piece with Iraq fiction works such from Redacted, Grace Is Gone, Stop-Loss and The Lucky Ones. As such it faces a very uncertain commercial fate. The movie appears best suited for cable, television and DVD markets, both domestically and abroad.

A prominent independent producer best known for his collaborations with Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette), Katz makes his directorial debut with the film. He collaborated with retired Lt Col Michael R Strobl on the script, working from the Marine’s journals. In mood and theme, the film is an unusual road movie that references the works of John Ford, particularly films like They Were Expendable or his cavalry trilogy that examined the often haunting personal consequences of duty.

In April 2004, a 19-year-old lance corporal named Chance Phelps died in a firefight with Iraqi insurgents. Mistakenly believing the young soldier is from his own hometown in Colorado, Strobl (Bacon), a systems and defense analyst for the Pentagon, volunteers to act as his military escort. The odyssey powerfully records the reactions and encounters of the people - limo drivers, airline attendants, pilots- Strobl interacts as he moves toward his destination of rural Wyoming.

Working with the gifted cinematographer Alar Kivilo, Katz produces a rush of powerful images grounded in ritual. The movie’s opening third achieves a near religious intensity heavy on process and details the cleaning of the body, the forensic care and devotion to preserving the soldier’s personal effects, including his identification dog tags and St Christopher medallion, to the rigorous and repetitive formations each escort, regardless of their military branch, enacts in performing their duty.

In its quietness and unobtrusive style, Taking Chance is quite moving. Katz finds the poetry in the ordinary actions, like the way a convoy of cars and trucks turn their headlights to form an impromptu procession. But when Katz tries to find some internal conflict to break up the dramatic rhythm, like Strobl’s growing guilt at combat service in the current Iraq war, he loses his control of the material. It comes wholly unnecessary given the solemn, devastating way Bacon’s expressive, lined face conveys the necessary pain and grief.

Production companies
HBO Films
Motion Picture Corp. of America
Civil Dawn Pictures

Lori Keith Douglas

Executive producers
Brad Krevoy
Cathy Wischner-Sola
Ross Katz

Ross Katz
Michael R Strobl

Alar Kivilo

Production design
Dan Leigh

Lee Percy
Brian A Kates

Marcelo Zarvos

Main cast
Kevin Bacon
Tom Aldredge
Paige Turco
Nicholas Reese Art
Blanche Baker
Tom Bloom
Tom Wopat
Julie White