A film review by Craig J. Koban June 27, 2017


2017, PG-13, 116 mins.


Kate Mara as Megan Leavey  /  Ramón Rodríguez as Matt Morales  /  Tom Felton as Andrew Dean  /  Bradley Whitford as Bob  /  Will Patton as Jim  /  Common as Gunny Martin  /  Edie Falco as Jackie Leavey  /  Miguel Gomez as Gomez  /  Geraldine James as Dr. Turbeville

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite  /  Written by Annie Mumolo, Pamela Gray, and Tim Lovestedt

MEGAN LEAVEY is a new fact based war drama about a particular subject matter that rarely, if ever, gets covered for these types of genre films: military K-9 units that serve with the fighting men and women on the frontlines.  

War films have been a relative and proverbial dime-a-dozen over the course of the last several decades, so imbuing them with newfangled freshness proves to be a rather daunting challenge for filmmakers.  I've seen countless military pictures, but MEGAN LEAVEY explores combat from a whole new revelatory lens by showing how bomb sniffing dogs are able to systematically find explosive devices of all kinds in pressure cooker combat scenarios, which essentially makes them life savers and heroes.  More importantly, MEGAN LEAVEY details the unbreakable bond that these canines have with their military handlers. 

Making her feature film directorial debut after helming documentaries like BLACKFISH, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's MEGAN LEAVEY begins rather swiftly and assuredly by introducing us to the titular character (played with equal parts grit and vulnerability by Kate Mara), an aimless drifter from one of those semi-dilapidated American small towns that would be best left abandoned and forgotten.  She has very little aspirations in life, nor career motivation, and her home life with her mother and stepfather (Edie Falco and Will Patton respectively) is one of constant friction.  Mentally, Megan is still traumatized by the drug overdose death of her best friend, one that she feels mostly responsible for.   Crippled by chronic alcoholism and a severe lack of personal motivation, she finds herself on a downward emotional spiral that she doesn't feel confident in shaking. 



Realizing that she must make some kind of radical change for the better, Megan decides to enlist in the marines in hopes of getting herself on some sort of track to mental recovery.  Her early days there, though, are fraught with insubordinate acts, like, for instance, drunkenly urinating outside a superior officer's office.  As punishment, Megan is given shit-detail at the barrack's K-9 unit, during which time she begins to see a potential career as a German Shepherd handler whose soul responsibilities are locating hard-to-find IED's on the battlefield.  When she meets one of the dogs, Rex, she's immediately smitten with the idea of taming the seemingly untamable animal, but his predilection to hostile outbursts with his previous handlers makes him a handful.  Within no time, Megan finds herself bonding with Rex and proving her worth, which rewards her with some actual missions in Iraq that changes her life forever. 

The real Megan Leavey served two tours in Iraq in Fallujah and Ramadi in 2005 and 2006 respectively, the latter mission which saw both her and her four legged soldier companion injured in combat when an undetected explosive blew up nearby and almost killed them both.  Megan was awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.  She tried to adopt Rex post-recovery, but that proved to be a very difficult task, seeing as he was (a) essentially property of the military and (b) was deemed unadoptable by his veterinarian because of the mental and physical damage he suffered during the bomb blast.  The latter half of MEGAN LEAVEY chronicles her tireless struggles to acclimatize herself back to civilian life without the animal that she grew to trust and love while in the military.  Through determined campaigning - including petitions, multiple media appearances and even an impromptu intervention with the help of a high ranking U.S. Senator - Megan sought to make Rex her companion back at home so that he could spend the last few remaining years he had left in peace. 

I usually have a fairly thick skin when it comes to potentially schmaltzy tear-jerking melodramas like MEGAN LEAVEY, but even the animal lover in me had an awfully hard time not welling up during a few key moments.  The film avoids all of the obvious pratfalls of these kind of overtly manipulative films by not being condescendingly saccharine throughout.  Cowperthwaite grounds her film on emotionally resonating levels and earns its dramatic payoffs without feeling like its cheating in anyway.  I also admired how MEGAN LEAVEY is not a one-note jingoistic celebration of the military and its missions in Iraq during the last decade.  Thankfully, the film never wastes any time on political commentary about the war itself, nor does it become a recruiting ad for the military.  If anything, MEGAN LEAVEY is ostensibly an intimately rendered drama about a troubled young woman discovering who she is and her purpose in life while learning what it means to passionately care about someone beyond herself. 

Kate Mara is an actress that I've had a tendency in the past to be a little hard on, mostly because she's so low key in her performances that she oftentimes registers a little flatly; she genrally lacks on screen charisma.  Her performances in MEGAN LEAVEY is more understatedly strong than what I've seen from her before, mostly, because she adeptly balances playing the role with equal parts warmth, humor, courage, and tenderness.  Plus, she has to hold her own in scenes playing off of a beguilingly cute at times furry co-star, which is no easy task.  She's also paired with some solid supporting actors, like the usually dependable Bradley Whitford as her nurturing voice of reason father and the calmly authoritative Common as her no-nonsense, but soft-spoken superior officer.  Less nuanced and poised is Edie Falco, a typically gifted performer that's unfortunately saddled with an underwritten red-necked stereotype role as Megan's hopelessly out of touch mother. 

MEGAN LEAVEY suffers a bit more in the character and subplot department, especially with a tacked on romantic angle between her and another military dog handler (Ramon Rodriguez) that prosaically goes from one predictable beat to the next.  That, and more often than not MEGAN LEAVEY occasionally feels like a sanitized made for TV Hallmark movie in terms of its somewhat neutered PG-13 tone.  Even though the combat sequences are, for the most part, handled with solid care and attention by Cowperthwaite, they're nevertheless bloodless ordeals that shy away from arguably the true horrors that Megan and Rex most likely endured.  Granted, I'm not sure that any studio would release a hard-R rated war film with this type of subject matter, especially seeing as it would alienate young audiences members from seeing it.   

Those are minor quibbles, because I found MEGAN LEAVEY to be unexpectedly moving and compelling on the whole as a look into a military sub-culture that, as mentioned, never seems to get celebrated on celluloid.  It doesn't really reinvents the formulaic wheel as far as these reality-based inspirational docudramas go, but Cowperthwaite understands how to make this conventional narrative about an unconventional subject work.  The film honors its human and non-human characters with deep sensitivity and becomes genuinely uplifting as a direct result.  Ultimately, I like movies that tackle mostly unexplored territory in well worn genres, not to mention heartfelt love stories made with earnest conviction that will make animal lovers want to go home and hug their pets after seeing them.  


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