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Review: Megan Leavey

June 9, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The narrative debut of documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who made waves with her hard-hitting SeaWorld exposé Blackfish in 2013, Megan Leavey is a solid and inspiring “based on a true story” drama, that gets to the heart of the human-animal bond.

The film recounts the story of Corporal Megan Leavey (Kate Mara), who joins the Marines as a way out of her dead-end life, and to escape the strained relationship that she has with her mother (Edie Falco) and stepfather (Will Patton) in suburban New York.

After graduating from basic training, Megan almost immediately ends up in hot water after a drunken episode and finds herself facing the disciplinary action of cleaning out kennels in the K9 unit.  This actually turns out to be a good thing, as she starts to form a bond with an aggressive bomb-sniffing dog named Rex.

With Megan not being much of a people person, and Rex being too hard for the other soldiers to handle after biting the hand of his original trainer, they become a perfect match.  The two are deployed to active duty in Iraq, but when they are wounded by an IED and become war heroes, Megan goes on leave to recover as Rex is redeployed with a new handler.  Not ready to part with her invaluable companion, Megan fights for the right to adopt Rex and give him the retirement that he deserves after a hard life, despite the usual policy of dogs being seen as the property of the armed forces.

Kate Mara does an excellent job of carrying the film, capturing both the steely courageousness that her character displays, as well as her guarded emotional vulnerability in the domestic scenes when she is struggling with PTSD after returning home.  We watch as she falls into depression over the fact that she might never see her canine companion again, and rising out of it as she becomes increasingly focused on reuniting with Rex, even mounting a successful media campaign to help her reach her goal.  Kate Mara plays this character arc with grounded determination and a moving sense of honesty that is compelling to watch, and I would be remiss not to mention that the dog actor also commands the screen.

The film is rounded out by a solid human supporting cast.  Ramon Rodriguez is especially charming as a fellow soldier who captures Megan’s attention, in a nicely handled romantic subplot.  Tom Felton does fine work as a supportive dog trainer who helps show her the ropes, and Common leaves his mark as the commander who is sympathetic to her cause.  Finally, Bradley Whitford does nice work as Megan’s father, in a quietly affective turn that stands in stark contrast to his unsettling patriarchal role in Get Out, with a heartfelt exchange between him and Kate Mara late in the game providing one of the film’s most emotional scenes.

The film does get off to a bit of a rushed start, opening with its title character already waiting at a bus stop to be taken to the Marines, while telling us in snippets of voiceover and flashbacks about the life she is escaping, followed by a brief training montage that feels a bit clichéd.  It’s when she gets transferred to working with the dogs that Megan Leavey almost immediately finds its footing by really starting to carve out its own identity, and it’s pretty much smooth sailing from here on out.

This is a thoroughly good movie overall, and one that is undeniably emotionally affective when it wants to be.  The scenes in Iraq are allowed to generate a fair amount of tension, as Rex sniffs out weapons and bombs that threaten both the human and dog lives, with the sense of danger really being felt during one especially harrowing sequence in the desert.  The combat scenes are suitably intense, but kept at a PG-13 level, so the film is fine for families with older kids to watch.  The final moments of Megan Leavey are genuinely touching, and provide a satisfying payoff to the story.

The film is patriotic and respectful of the troops without feeling jingoistic, and is unique in the recent wave of Iraq war dramas both in that it focuses on a female soldier, and also explores the use of dogs in the armed services.  Carried by an excellent performance from Kate Mara, Megan Leavey is a tearjerker that also manages to be inspiring, capturing the unbreakable bond between a soldier and her dog with genuine emotion and moving authenticity.

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