Clearly made with love and respect, the cable original “Taking Chance” (7 p.m., today, HBO) is a challenging film in almost every way. Based on a true story set in 2004, the film stars Kevin Bacon as Marine Col. Michael Strobl, a Desert Storm veteran filled with guilt about working in a cubicle while so many fellow Marines are facing dangers in Iraq.
As a gesture of expiation and respect, Strobl offers to provide the personal Marine escort for the remains of Marine Chance Phelps, who happened to be from his hometown. The film follows Strobl and Phelps’ body from the time it arrives in Delaware to its final burial.
It’s no irony or disrespect to describe the film as unfolding with military precision. Soldiers cool body bags with ice by the bag. Mutilated remains not suitable for public viewing are still tended to with meticulous care. Personal effects get steam-cleaned of blood and sand. Flag-draped coffins move on conveyor belts. Marines salute the coffin within a packing box at every stop and station on the long route home. Regularly upgraded to first class, Strobl projects an air of stoic resignation and a little despair as “Taking Chance” straddles the line between grim and ceremonial and between solemn and depressing.
For reasons both emotional and dramatic, this may be too much for some viewers to endure. For those who hang on, Bacon offers a memorable performance of quiet, often mute strength, projecting a brand of haunted, taciturn dignity that recalls Clint Eastwood and the best of the strong, silent types.
• Steve Coogan hosts the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards (4 p.m., today, IFC), the indie-film celebration that anticipates the Oscars in more ways than one. Films up for best independent feature include “Ballast,” “Frozen River,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “The Wrestler.” The awards will repeat at 9 p.m. today on AMC.
• In a tradition that has lasted for the better part of three decades, “The Barbara Walters Special” (6 p.m., Sunday, ABC) offers a pre-ceremony chat with folks who have a lot riding on the night’s events, as well as a few celebrities who just happen to be popular at the moment.
Walters chats with Anne Hathaway, star of the documentary-style drama “Rachel Getting Married.”
Look for Mickey Rourke as well. He may not win an Oscar, but he’s a cinch for Hollywood comeback of the year. Oscar host Hugh Jackman talks about his approach to the high-wire act. And just when things get too Hollywood, along come the Jonas Brothers, teen musical sensations of the moment.
I predict that by the time the the 81st Academy Awards (7:30 p.m., Sunday, ABC) is five minutes old, we will have good idea whether Jackman is a hit or a dud. The Australian showman is a razzle-dazzle departure from recent hosts, including Jon Stewart and Ellen DeGeneres, whose appeal depended on deadpan understatement and irony.
• Injured in Germany on “The Amazing Race” (7 p.m., CBS).
• You can’t get much further from the Oscars than “Hitler’s Hidden City” (7 p.m., National Geographic), a documentary look at a hidden network of tunnels and shelters built by the Nazis and closed since the fall of the Third Reich.
• “Oliver Twist” concludes on “Masterpiece” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings).