Sunday, March 15, 2009

“Taking Chance” A Lenten Parable from HBO

Readers’ Advisory – Reading someone else’s writing about a poem is never safe. What the writer thinks is there is likely to be different from what you think is there. And make no mistake: TAKING CHANCE is a poem. A mesmerizing little film that runs just over an hour with the thinnest of story lines but the thickness of premium ice cream and as many facets as a well cut diamond.

At its simplest, this film is the story of a Marine Colonel who, frustrated with his role as a desk jockey, volunteers to escort the body of PFC Chance Phelps, a young Marine who has been killed in Iraq, home to his family.

At its core, the film is also a profound illustration of the miracle that can happen when a person takes to heart the words of Ian’s wonderful song, “There’s a Black Wind blowing across this land . . . . Reach out and take somebody’s hand.”

Against all protocol – “officers are not generally assigned to escort PFCs” the Colonel is told – this man asks for the job and discovers that he has asked for it for “wrong” reasons. The Colonel has focused on this particular young Marine believing that he will be returning the body to his own hometown. Does he think he will be making his own journey home? It turns out, however, that Chance was recruited in the Colonel’s hometown, but that his family is actually in a small town in another State.

Nevertheless, the Colonel undertakes his task with absolute vigilance. He begins by checking with the Dover mortuary staff to make sure that Chance has been dressed in the correct dress uniform carrying all of the medals the young man has earned. He has been told that he is not to let go of the bag holding Chance’s personal effects until he gives it to the family, and he refuses to relinquish it at airport security. He is told he is responsible for the soldier until they arrive at the destination mortuary and not only does he check to ensure that the correct box is loaded and unloaded at each transfer, but he chooses to sleep by its side in a warehouse during the overnight layover at the Minneapolis airport.

No over-the-top stereotypes here: the Colonel takes every action with the deliberateness of a priest kissing his stole at the highest of Masses.

Along the way he, and we, meet an amazing array of people who choose, each in his or her own way, to participate in the young Marine’s journey home. Once they reach Chance’s hometown, the Colonel has no responsibilities other than the delivery of the personal effects, but he meets and chooses to participate with a remarkable community that has dedicated itself to events surrounding the homecoming and burial.

I’ve left more out of this telling than I have put in, but nothing I could write could really capture thie extraordinary experience I had watching this film. Based on the Colonel’s journal of his trip, it is a stately riff on teamwork, ritual, and community. And, to me, it is the story of one man’s surprising redefinition of what matters – and of his reconnection to his own soul.

The events of TAKING CHANCE began over Easter weekend of 2004; watching it will probably become part of my own Easter tradition. It may not become part of yours, but I urge you to see it and discover for yourself what it says to you.

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