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When Duty Calls
by Karen Pecota

The festival buzz word, DIVERSITY, is used with pride to describe the varied genre of films at Sundance. It is not uncommon to see a showcase of films chosen for the same theme content and then the diversity is illustrated by the filmmaker’s spin of the narrative. Point in case: this year there were at least two films dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome—Mary and Max and ADAM (see film reviews on pages 13 and 14). The similarities of the disorder with the two main characters in these films were not initially obvious--the intrigue with the clay-mation of Mary and Max threw me off! It was only when I began to compare the films, did I appreciate the openness for Sundance’s emphasis on diversity to help filmmakers communicate a message using their creativity.
The festival films Taking Chance and The Messenger (see film reviews on page15) caught my attention because they focused on one of the more difficult jobs military personnel will be asked to perform. These were both full length feature films that embraced an occupation in the military service that offers support to the next of kin of its members involved in a casualty. Each branch of the military has a slightly varied terminology for the same position. The Marines were the focus in Taking Chance and the Army was the focus in The Messenger. The job is referred to as either a CACO (Casualty Assistance Calls Officer) or a CNO (Casualty Notification Officer).

My military background is limited to my grandpa who fought in WWI, and my nephew, Dave, who joined the Marine Reserves at the beginning of the Iraqi war. I thought about my nephew while watching Taking Chance mainly due to the similarities and their early entry into war. My nephew’s service of duty paralleled that of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps (in the film Taking Chance) but each soldier had a different outcome. My nephew always wanted to join the Marines and enlisted in 2002 as a Lance Corporal as did Lance Corporal Chance Phelps. Dave went to boot camp in August of 2002, graduated in November and began schooling for infantry to graduate in February 2003. In March of that year, he left for Iraq with the Kilo Company which landed first in Kuwait and then Iraq. He served in Iraq for six months and returned home as a Corporal. Very little is discussed about his tour of duty because of the difficulties he encountered but our family is proud of him as he gave allegiance to serve his country. Thankfully, although limited, my understanding still allows me to relate to the military stories generated here at the festival because they are human responses to doubt, pain and joy.

When duty calls, stepping up to the job necessary, at the particular moment, is what civilians have to honor. Each of the festival films, Taking Chance and The Messenger, reflect upon making difficult decisions. They each confront a different type of allegiance off the battlefield in order to serve their country. The similarities were the job requirement to be a representative of high military office--the Secretary of the Army/Marines--to bear and deliver heart-wrenching information. They attempt do the right thing by their fellow colleague and follow a very strict protocol. They respect the position, though difficult, and take their job seriously. The film narratives are about two very personal journeys in relation to their jobs and the impact communication plays in order to deal with deep and honest human emotions, kept “below the belt” and held in check inside a rough physical exterior.

The diversity lies in the story telling from the filmmakers representing two different military jobs: the first contact to personally relay the difficult message acknowledging a casualty to the next of kin vs. the process of escorting the casualty to its resting place. The Messenger, a fictitious story, emphasizes the stereotypical crude, wild, military lifestyle, on the road to Lasso in a message of redemption. The film takes a while to get there but it was the amazing performance from actors, Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson who “roped the calf’ to address crossing ethical boundaries. They exposed the vulnerability necessary for redemption to take place, not common in trained military. The film Taking Chance, a true account from LTCOL MICHAEL R. STROBL, USMC (Ret.), emphasizes a moral obligation to love, honor and respect for the lives chosen for military service. The electrifying performance from actor Kevin Bacon stimulates an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the services the military personnel render and illuminate the ways they take pride to care for “one of their own.” This exceptional account stirs the soul and reaches deeply to exemplify wonderful people who live by core moral values. This film was given distribution with HBO for February 24, 2009.