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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.