PARK CITY, Utah (AP) -- First comes the bearer of bad news — that a loved one has died in combat. Then comes the bearer of the loved one — the military escort who brings the fallen home.
Kevin Bacon's HBO drama "Taking Chance" chronicles a home-front saga little-known to most Americans — the procedures and protocols followed in tending to our battle casualties and the honors paid them on their last journey.
Based on a true story, the film stars Bacon as Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a career officer who volunteered to escort the body of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps back to his family in Wyoming after the 19-year-old was killed in Iraq in April 2004.
Then based in Quantico, Va., Strobl traveled to the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where Phelps' body was prepared.
The film depicts the agonizing attention devoted to slain troops. Blood and grime scrubbed from dog tags, watches and other personal effects. Hands carefully cleaned, though they will be concealed by white gloves. Uniforms and medals meticulously arranged, even in cases of closed-casket funerals.
And that's just the beginning. Along the way, escorts and other military personnel must solemnly salute the dead each time their bodies are taken off a hearse or loaded onto a plane.
"It never occurred to me, the painstaking detail," Bacon said in an interview alongside Strobl at January's Sundance Film Festival, where "Taking Chance" premiered. (It will make its HBO debut Saturday.)
"The fact that the honors are rendered when the remains are moved from one place to another. I was like, you're kidding? I mean, wow. I was really stunned, and then I think that's in a way what the essence of the movie is. You tell this very, very simple, specific story about this guy and this kid and this one journey, then hopefully, people start to think about the bigger picture of the families and the loss of life and the sacrifice."
Along the way, Bacon's Strobl encounters little moments of compassion and communal grief with strangers who never catch a glimpse of Phelps but are moved by the young man's voyage home.
A civilian hearse driver explains he took the job partly in honor of friends wounded or killed in Iraq. An airline clerk upgrades Strobl to first-class with a somber thank you for his escort duty. A flight attendant gives him a gold crucifix. An airline pilot who — like Strobl, served in Desert Storm — joins in saluting Phelps.
"People you can presume represented the whole spectrum of views on our policies, they all, without exception, were grateful for Chance and saddened by the loss," said Strobl, who retired from the Marines in 2007 and now works a civilian job at the Pentagon.
Escorts are required to keep detailed factual records of their trips. As Strobl continued to meet people touched by Phelps, his record changed from by-the-numbers details to a personal journal.
Strobl shared it with colleagues, and the story eventually made its way to executive producer Brad Krevoy, who brought the project to HBO.
Ross Katz, a producer on such films as "Lost in Translation" and "In the Bedroom," collaborated with Strobl to write the screenplay and also made his directing debut on "Taking Chance."
Like Bacon, Katz initially hesitated, uncertain he wanted to take on an Iraq film, a sub-genre that generally has failed to find an audience among war-weary Americans.
The tipping point that convinced Katz to direct "Taking Chance" was when he caught a TV news item one night about the latest casualties from a roadside bomb in Iraq.
Normally very engaged with international news, Katz said he felt nothing, that he was completely desensitized by the onslaught of similar wartime tragedies.
"I remember going outside, walking down the street ... and everybody was running off to dinner, living their lives in busy Manhattan," Katz said. "I thought to myself, a parent right now is getting a knock on the door, and some Marine or airman or Army soldier is informing that parent that their child has died. Why is everything normal outside? Shouldn't the world stop for a second?"
While filming, Bacon found even his movie world stopped for a moment as the filmmakers re-created Strobl's journey with the box containing Phelps' coffin.
"There was this odd thing where the process of making the film, it's all pretend, and yet I sort of felt a similar kind of thing to what Mike has expressed going through," Bacon said. "Because we'd shoot these scenes, even though there was nothing in our box, just people watching it were really profoundly affected by it."
Strobl said he wants the film to leave a similar impression on audiences.
"Understandably but also regrettably, we all kind of get desensitized to the numbers," Strobl said. "If nothing else, I hope people walk away from this movie and kind of pause to remember the 4,000 names that they may have glanced at in the paper or seen on the news or even worse, may have just ignored because they've seen so many of them.
"If they just take a minute and think about those service members and their families, that would be gratifying."
HBO is owned by Time Warner Inc.
On the Net: