Megan Leavey, 2017.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
Starring Kate Mara, Ramon Rodríguez, Tom Felton, Common, Geraldine James, Edie Falco, Will Patton, and Bradley Whitford.
Based on the true life story of a young Marine corporal whose unique discipline and bond with her military combat dog saved many lives during their deployment in Iraq.
A few short weeks ago Netflix released War Machine, which at this point proved that filmmakers are beating a dead horse by consistently criticizing the war in Iraq, how it was handled by politicians and soldiers alike, and by generally being another antiwar movie (this one isn’t a bad thing, but the point still stands). Essentially, I ended that review with a plea for the next Iraqi-based war flick to do something, anything different. Thankfully, Megan Leavey (based on the true story of the titular real-life war hero and her equally heroic canine bomb sniffer Rex that saved over 1,000 lives during his service) is that movie, separating itself from thoroughly combed over material by focusing on both a female soldier and the role of dogs in these dangerous scenarios.
Megan (portrayed by House of Cards‘ Kate Mara) comes from a broken home (divorced parents, trouble connecting with others and maintaining even the most basic jobs) and is struggling with apparent depression from the inability to finish mourning the loss of her best and seemingly only friend, primarily because partial responsibility for the death does lie on mistakes they made together. Her life is directionless, and as a result, the movie itself seems to just go with the flow, which is typically a death knell for films but here functions properly thanks to its thematic resonance. She ends up fascinated by the Marine’s canine program, preferring it to being around actual human beings. Her bonding skills are basically broken, but let’s face it, most people suck anyway.
What ensues is a charming story depicting an unbreakable friendship between woman and woman’s best friend. It also never marches too far into saccharine territory, although the third act definitely does drag out the drama to ensure that the film’s ending packs an emotional wallop (it is moving, but would have benefited from a less is more approach during the final 30 minutes). The love interest subplot between a fellow soldier played by Ramon Rodríguez also probably could have been cut, but even when Megan Leavey, both the character and movie, are stumbling through life the viewing is often captivating largely in part due to a fantastic performance from Kate Mara; she is able to portray everything from a drifting loner personality to PTSD after an intense battle situation.
It’s not just a one-woman show though, as Kate Mara is able to find outstanding chemistry with the various German shepherds that play Rex over the course of the movie. Whether they’re in the thick of Iraq checking for explosives at city checkpoints or unwinding with some fun downtime in their living quarters, the bonding comes across believable, and as a result, sympathy is earned for the pair throughout the good times and inevitable bad events. The performances are also so calculated, that as the movie goes on and the budding friendship between woman and animal grows even stronger, so too does Megan as a woman and a warrior. The closer her affection toward Rex becomes, the more confident, responsible, disciplined, and efficient she becomes as a soldier and person, completely unafraid to set free her thoughts and tell anyone off. The most beautiful thing about Megan Leavey is that it’s actually a coming-of-age story set in wartime Iraq where canine companionship is the single driving factor and motivator.
Still, there is also the sense that it doesn’t reach its full potential. Too much of it just plays out like a feel-good story regarding a woman and her dog, frequently shying away from the true horrors of war, only briefly touching upon PTSD for both humans and animals. A critical plot point toward the back half of the film is that Rex is considered unadoptable as a pet because his war experience has subsequently made him a danger to the public (what if the canine mistakenly attacks a child with a toy gun). These sort of negative outcomes are never really felt because the film isn’t really interested in telling a raw, gritty story, so in that respect it kind of neuters the point trying to be made. We’re just supposed to take everyone’s word for it, which doesn’t work here.
Megan Leavey is easy to recommend though simply for the fresh take on telling a story set during the Iraqi war. Again, watching a military movie commanded by a female presence also feels like a revolutionary milestone in this day and age, although the film doesn’t really play up the uphill battles there are for a woman serving in the Marine Corps. Nonetheless, it’s awesome witnessing Kate Mara as a skilled markswoman; her emotion, love for Rex, and their adorable chemistry together are enough to make this one a win.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★