Film Review: Megan Leavey

Girl joins Marines and bonds with bomb-sniffing dog; girl leaves Marines and almost loses dog—and if audiences have stuck with this straightforward, fact-based melodrama up to this point, they’ll probably hang around for its tearful “happy” ending.
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Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is a 20-year-old girl from upstate New York who in 2003 joins the Marines simply because she’s depressed, feels hopeless and has nothing else to do. Then, while in training to get into the military police, Megan is punished for some minor infraction by being ordered to scrub down the kennels in the Marines’ K9 division—and it is there that she first meets the fearsome German shepherd named Rex, who’s so out of control he has been deemed an untrainable dog and unfit for military service.

Megan, however, sees Rex as a lost soul like herself, and becomes convinced that if she can only bond with him she’ll be able to turn him into a fighting dog. She accomplishes this by spending one entire night in a staring contest with him, and it seems to work, for Rex begins to respond to training, especially if it’s from Megan. The higher-ups are impressed and she becomes Rex’s “handler” and together they go through the rough and rigorous training all other Marines must endure. Next thing we know, Megan and Rex are in Iraq, and although women were not yet allowed on the front lines at that time, these two are sent out ahead of the troops, to find and destroy any roadside bombs in their path. Most of their missions are tedious and routine: Rex sniffs the ground till he finds a bomb, then Megan marks it for destruction by the bomb squad. The pair’s most rewarding day comes when Rex sniffs out a huge cache of weapons hidden in a terrorist’s home, and suddenly they’re everybody’s favorite bomb-sniffing team.

It’s dangerous work, of course, but Megan and Rex proceed unharmed through almost 100 missions (although we see only a couple) well into their second deployment, in 2006. But when their unit nears Ramadi, a remote-controlled land mine explodes right on top of them, and they’re both wounded. Her injuries bring Megan a purple heart, and since her tour of duty is over, she returns to civilian life back in the States, where she pines away for her pal Rex, who is already back in combat—with another handler.

Clearly, Megan Leavey is a movie for dog lovers—so it’s a good thing the dog playing Rex is more appealing and empathetic than the pint-size Kate Mara, who’s never quite believable as a heroic Marine, although she’s perfectly convincing as a girl who loves her dog more than she loves any human. From time to time, though, Megan must interact with people—including her mother Kathy (Edie Falco), who’s divorced from Bob (Bradley Whitford), Megan’s dad. Then there’s Marine Sergeant Gunny Martin (Common), who trains Megan to be a dog handler, and Matt (Ramon Rodriquez), a fellow Marine, who serves as an unlikely and unlucky love interest. All these characters, by the way, show more gumption than Megan, who upon her discharge from the Marines reverts to the depressed and aimless small-town girl she used to be.

However, the civilian Megan does come to life (sort of) to launch a years-long fight for permission to adopt Rex, who’s retired from the Marines but labeled “unadoptable” because of the trauma he suffered during his bomb-sniffing days. But never fear, girl and dog are finally reunited, thanks to the power of publicity and some direct interventions by power-people such as New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer. In the end, heroic girl and dog are honored as heroes by no less than the entire New York Yankees organization at a special game at Yankee Stadium.

Megan Leavey is a real person, of course, and she did join the Marines to work with a bomb-sniffing dog named Rex, and the two of them did see considerable action in Iraq. Also, as a civilian, Ms. Leavey finally did succeed in adopting Rex and she cared for him during the last years of his life. Okay. But these dry facts do not add up to a juicy screenplay. Also, although the battle scenes are well done, they’re certainly not the best we’ve seen—but these are not the only problems with Megan Leavey, the movie. Chief among them, unfortunately, is that this film audibly groans under the weight of its feminist good intentions: The central character is a female war hero, the director is female (documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite in her unsuccessful first try at a fictional feature), and two of the three screenwriters are women. While we applaud and encourage more women to work in film, we’re also aware that their mere presence cannot be relied upon to get moviegoers to step up to the box office and part with their hard-earned moolah.

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