“Megan Leavey” (2017) – “You don’t really connect with people very well.”
No, Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) does not easily connect with people, and she cannot find her footing in the game of life either. Working a dead-end job in the small community of Valley Cottage, NY and feeling frustrated by her overbearing, unsupportive mom (Edie Falco), this young woman is reaching her limit. She needs a change, and faster than you can say “forward march”, Megan joins the United States Marine Corps (USMC). After an eye-opening basic training stint, the USMC whisks her to Southern California, but – predictably – she finds herself in a heap of trouble. Sgt. Martin (Common) orders her to clean the dog kennels for a week, but Megan unknowingly finds her calling: working with the bomb-sniffing dogs. Specifically, she forms a special bond with the camp’s most aggressive canine, a German Shepherd named Rex.
Well, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite bonds with Megan’s real life story and delivers “Megan Leavey” to the big screen in a biopic that tugs on your heartstrings and inspires in expected and unexpected ways. Animal lovers who cherish films like “My Dog Skip” (2000) and “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” (2009) will certainly appreciate the person/dog dynamic here. Cowperthwaite and Mara carve out meaningful establishing scenes that showcase Megan’s attempts to engage with Rex, who appears untrainable at times as well as dangerous. Megan not only has to overcome her fear of Rex but needs to conquer her own self-doubt. Adding another layer of intricate complication, the film shifts to the war-torn landscapes of Iraq in the early 2000s.
This is an Iraq War picture, and Cowperthwaite does not pull punches. The film includes some very intense moments, in which Megan and Rex probe potential dangers in suspect locales, including a random home in the dead of night and car checkpoints, which are anything but routine. Their job? To be the canaries in the coal mine. With Megan’s guidance and initially shaky leadership, Rex sniffs out guns and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), paving the way for hopeful, safe journeys for her brothers and sisters on the battlefield.
Make no mistake, Megan and Rex reside on the front lines, but they are not assigned to run towards enemy gunfire with bullets flying. Instead, their responsibilities are much more hazardous and infinitely uncertain, as they make repeated, first contacts with the unknown, when the air is still.
IEDs could be hidden anywhere, so “Megan Leavey” definitely channels a “The Hurt Locker” (2008) vibe, but this movie splits its time between nail-biting sequences and Megan’s growth through her relationship with Rex. Mara is very convincing as a stymied human being looking for purpose, finding it and then unearthing the strength and courage to hold onto it. Mara – who is slight in stature (5’ 2”) and build – does not physically resemble a typical marine, so her portrayal of Megan’s initial apprehensions in the field are terribly convincing. Several moments of handwringing resonate in our movie theatre seats, as Megan carefully – but assuredly – walks towards extreme risk, and her eyes peer from underneath a helmet which looks about one and a half sizes too large.
Cowperthwaite does not shy away from the intensity, but she also brings a distinct, feminine touch to the film. She and Mara delve into Megan’s upstream fights with Sgt. Martin, her mom and her place in the world, and effectively capture her struggle to define herself as a responsible soldier and as a woman. One particularly warm moment involves Megan’s initial work with Rex in California. After – seemingly – weeks of Rex initiating fear and/or ignoring Megan altogether, he finally follows one of her commands, and she releases a look of utter surprise, joy and empowerment. This wonderful, this-is-where-I-belong scene certainly draws us to Megan, as we see her positive life-turn in sight.
Whether or not Megan – in real life – struggled with sexism during her time in the USMC, the film does not identify it as part of her experience, save a few initial glances from her male counterparts when she arrives in California. Otherwise, she is treated like a complete equal, which is highly refreshing.
Even though Megan’s affecting bond with Rex is a huge part of the picture, thankfully, “Megan Leavey” does not bathe us in tears, but yes, it does splash us at times. Anchored by Cowperthwaite’s steady hand and strong performances – including key supporting work by Falco and Bradley Whitford (who is almost unrecognizable) – “Megan Leavey” defines a person of character, who does connect with others and in the process, finds her purpose, 6,000 miles away from Valley Cottage, NY. Sounds like a reason to celebrate…with tears of joy.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Written by: Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt
Starring: Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, and Edie Falco
Runtime: 116 minutes
Image credits: Bleecker Street