(2017—Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
High ★★★ (out of 5 stars)
At first glance, combining the friendship of a human and a dog with the harsh realities of war end up manipulating the emotions in an unnatural way. Fortunately, the true story of Megan Leavey and her war dog Rex steers clear of sentimental overload. Their chemistry matches the impressive and restrained war sequences and the film’s subtle patriotism, enough to distract audiences from the stale scenes of Megan struggling to relate with her parents. Megan Leavey makes for a solid narrative film debut by documentary director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish).
It is 2000 and Megan Leavey (Kate Mara, The Martian), wanting to distance herself from her troubled family life in Valley Cottage, NY, chooses to enlist in the Marine Corps. Megan survives boot camp and gets assigned to Camp Pendleton, but one night of drunk antics results in her having to clean the K-9 unit kennel. While fulfilling her punishment, Megan becomes intrigued by Rex, one of the more disobedient and aggressive German Shepherd dogs trained for bomb detection. Megan works to become Rex’s dog handler. Over the course of two deployments in Iraq, she and Rex save hundreds of lives by locating many hidden explosive devices. One such device wounds both of them enough to dissuade Megan from continuing her enlistment. A civilian once again, Megan begins a campaign to adopt Rex, whose behavioral history might prevent him from ever reuniting with his cherished human companion and comrade in war.
Megan Leavey shines most during its Iraq sequences, when Megan and Rex patrolled the dangerous desert roadways and supervised civilian checkpoints. The beauty of scenes taking place away from the safety of base camp or back at home is that an audience member never knows where the danger lurks. My favorite scene involves an Iraqi businessman and his son waiting at a checkpoint as Megan guides Rex to sniff in and around their vehicle. Megan’s fellow Marines take note of the businessman’s fluency in English. The businessman’s son asks Megan for Rex’s name, upon which one of Megan’s comrades warn her that insurgent youths have called American bomb detection dogs by their names, strapped bombs on them, and set them off when the dogs returned to the American base camp. The random popping of another Iraqi’s motorbike several yards back in the line alerts Megan’s comrades as Rex continues his inspection. These little touches electrify the screen with tension.
For most of its runtime, Megan Leavey proceeds in a typical biopic fashion. It starts off on a bad note, with an overstuffed opening voice-over by Megan, orienting us to what led to her enlistment decision. The scenes of Megan interacting with her parents (Edie Falco as her mother, Bradley Whitford as her father, and Will Patton as the stepfather) were derivative and a waste of the film’s veteran talents. One scene towards the end of the film in which Bradley Whitford encourages a depressed Megan to work harder in adopting Rex using generic platitudes was particularly cringeworthy. Based on their execution, Megan’s scenes with her parents should have been left on the cutting room floor. Doing so would free the film to tap more into Megan and Rex’s relationship, especially since the story covers a full decade of Megan’s life. Elsewhere, Ramón Rodriguez (Marvel’s Iron Fist) as Matt, Megan’s fellow Marine and love interest, shows charisma, spunk, and makes believable his cute New York baseball rivalry with Megan (he’s a Mets fan, she’s a Yankee fan). Furthermore, it makes me smile to see Tom Felton (Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy) taking on small but diverse supporting roles with which he can further his post-Harry Potter career. (I also liked him in A United Kingdom, an underseen British delight from earlier this year.) Finally, I would be remiss to not mention lead star Kate Mara—whose turn as the titular hero carries the film from start to finish—and the group of German Shepherd dogs who portray Rex.
After reviewing blockbusters for the past month, it was nice to make this detour into quieter movie fare. Megan Leavey is not a perfect biopic and a more seasoned director might have re-framed the film to focus almost entirely on the central human-dog relationship. Still, it is that relationship, a few impressive war sequences, and a wise and unspoken patriotic spirit that help the film succeed in honoring the efforts of both its real-life figures and of all those serving in the armed forces, be they bipedal or quadrupedal.
(Parental Note: Megan Leavey contains realistic warfare involving firearms and explosives. There is family dysfunction, with Megan openly resenting her mother’s infidelity that led to her parents’ divorce. A romantic relationship out of wedlock takes place between Megan and Matt, which includes a scene of fierce kissing and later two post-coital conversation scenes. There are PG-13-limited uses of the F-word and the S-word, a handful of misuses of God and Jesus’ names, and a few colorful insults used a couple of times. The bully-like Marine Corps setting and Rex’s initial aggressiveness (including one scene where he bites his previous handler’s hand, resulting in six broken hand bones for the handler) might startle some viewers.)