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‘Megan Leavey’ Review: A Predictable Yet Satisfying War Story

Kate Mara shines in a film that might not have the greatest focus but does finish strong.
By  · Published on June 8th, 2017

Kate Mara shines in a film that might not have the greatest focus but does finish strong.

Documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite already has a secure place in the history of non-fiction filmmaking with her 2013 heartbreaker Blackfish, which spawned unprecedented public awareness and outrage around the treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld, and eventually led to SeaWorld slowly redefining their mission and practices in the face of their rapidly declining profits. In Blackfish, she observantly portrayed both humans and whales trapped inside a vicious circle of corporate greed. With Megan Leavey, a narrative film based on a true story, she isn’t far off from her home base as an animal-loving documentarian. Following a young Marine corporal’s bonding and overseas missions with a special case K9, Cowperthwaite tells a humane, delicate story of loyalty and camaraderie between an emotionally struggling human being and her furry partner in good times and bad. Megan Leavey isn’t flawless in its structure and thematic priorities, but what it has is a worthy tale of commitment and bravery, which satisfyingly wraps up in a touching finale.

Kate Mara convincingly plays the lead heroine, who starts off the film with an all-too-traditional voiceover, summarizing Megan’s life troubles that prompt her to join the Marines in 2003. After losing her best friend whose family has always been closer to Megan than her own, Megan’s aimlessness in life reaches its peak while she hits rock bottom: she drinks, can’t even hold onto the simplest of employments and finds herself utterly alone in life. Plus, she is stuck dealing with her difficult mother Jackie (Edie Falco), who lives with her new life partner Jim (Will Patton) after getting divorced from Megan’s dad Bob (Bradley Whitford).

To escape the mess of her Upstate New York home, she joins the army, becomes a dog handler and gets paired up with a dog with mild aggression issues named Rex (played by a German Shephard named Varco, who walks out of Megan Leavey as the film’s finest actor.) The two successfully complete over a hundred missions in Iraq and save thousands of lives, until a near-death experience sends both of them back home. Confident she will be able to keep Rex as her life companion, Megan starts the adoption procedures only to learn that Rex would be shipped to Afghanistan with a new handler. Even her generally compassionate and supportive superior (Common) can’t reverse the decision made by higher ups, thanks to an (implausibly) unsympathetic veterinarian. To make matters worse, her brief romantic interest (Ramon Rodriguez) further complicates an already crowded field of problems.

Co-written by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt, Megan Leavey occasionally suffers from an unfocused pace. In its initial act, it breezily handles Megan’s boot camp training and bonding with Rex with an economy and sufficient emotional weight. It follows this competent set up beautifully with well-orchestrated mission scenes in Iraq where Megan and Rex truly earn our love and concern with their believable on-screen chemistry as wartime partners. Yet, their time back home falters in keeping our attention. The PTSD, which both Rex and Megan experience in their own ways, is brushed over and Megan’s confusing struggles with her family are never exactly clarified. In that regard, the familial pep talks and face-offs that eventually convince Megan to start a petition to adopt Rex do little towards stirring up our emotions.

But once she takes matters in her own hands, Megan Leavey delivers an emotionally empowering and thoroughly exciting final act that in due course reunites Megan with the loyal partner that saved her life in Iraq. Sure, the film is predictable from the start (even for those who don’t know how the true story itself ends) and its trajectory is a little paint-by-numbers among films that honor the bond between broken humans and their devoted dogs. Plus, it regrettably hints at some xenophobic leanings during the war scenes: one of the soldiers on the field suggests Iraqis don’t like dogs and that’s a part of their culture. This bigoted and false opinion presented as fact unfortunately goes unchallenged. Yet still, it succeeds at becoming a war film filled with peaceful feelings. For the most part, that is in large thanks to the dedication of the canine actor who makes us see his unconditional love and nobility. At last, a dog film in which the dog doesn’t die a most vicious death and gets treated with dignity. That’s something.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.