Sundance 2009: Taking Chance and Reporter
Well, it's been a busy weekend at Sundance, where I've packed in nearly twenty screenings since the last report. Let me start with a couple that I found particularly good:
Taking Chance is a very simple film about Lt. Col. Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon) who is escorting the body of a fallen PFC named Chance Phelps to his family. In under ninety minutes, the film bears witness to the respectful procedures that the USMC follows in such situations and to the reactions of ordinary Americans who Strobl meets on this particular journey. He doesn't know the Private, and we learn only a few details about Strobl himself, but I found the film to be one of the most moving experiences I've had in a theater, almost indescribably so. Bacon's solidity and restraint bind the minimal plot together, as do the tasteful decisions made by filmmaker Ross Katz, a producer-turned-director (he produced Lost in Translation and In the Bedroom) who tells the story with remarkable efficiency, never lingering past a scene's essential moment, never overplaying the emotion. It's the best feature film about America's involvement in Iraq that I've seen. I'm not a military guy, and I've never had much interest in the Marines, but after the screening I needed some time to walk around. Taking Chance airs on HBO in February. You ought to see it.
By coincidence, the next film I saw after my walk was Reporter, an excellent documentary by Eric Daniel Metzgar about New York Times columnist and reporter Nicholas Kristof. The film follows him and his photographer into the Congo and Darfur as he attempts to draw attention to atrocities. The fact examined by the film is that stories about individuals seem to connect with readers better than stories about masses. It's true, of course. Statistics are numbing, but faces are real. And the film itself is an example of that; it's initially a little dry, but once we get to know Kristof and the people around him, and once we recognize that the filmmakers are critiquing as well as appreciating his approach, it not only becomes more absorbing but also begins to comment on the tectonic shifts that are occurring in the business of news-gathering.
As I was watching, I reflected once again on Taking Chance which tells a story about an individual in order to illuminate the stories of many others. As someone says to Strobl, "Without a witness, they just disappear." That's a hallmark of Kristof's writing, and of the best films about the Iraq war — Taking Chance, The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierez, Iraq in Fragments, and The War Tapes — and I'm not sure I could've assembled a more provocative double feature from any pair of films in this festival.
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Coming up: a report on the much talked about films 500 Days of Summer, Spring Breakdown, Cold Souls, Moon, The September Issue, and others, plus reports on films starring Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Paul Giamatti, Michael Cera, Amy Poehler, Sam Rockwell, and the devil who wears Prada.