Film review Katie Walsh
Based on a true story, Megan Leavey is a unique movie about war. Its a story of heroism, sacrifice and connection forged on the battlefield, but its remarkable in how the story it tells is so deeply personal that it obfuscates the political. The focus is on the troops, as it should be, and in this case, troops whose stories havent always been seen on screen the women, and the canine.
Named after the woman who protected soldiers in Iraq with her IED-detecting K9 officer, Sergeant Rex, Megan Leavey might be a story about war, but its much more a tale about the bond between humans and animals. Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite was recruited to direct her first narrative feature by star Kate Mara, who was inspired by Cowperthwaites animal advocacy with the Sea World documentary. In placing the relationship between K9 dogs and their handlers at the forefront of this story, this film about war is far more a story about compassionate connection under fire than the circumstances that lead to such events.
Leavey (Mara) signs up for the Marines as a way out of her dead-end life, and there, she finds a purpose, and a soul mate, in Rex. As a female K9 handler in Iraq during the height of the conflict in the early 2000s, she is out in front of the front lines before women were even allowed in combat, and Cowperthwaite captures that queasy sense of unease and terror of walking out into unknown territory, bombs potentially anywhere underfoot. Wounded in an explosion, Leavey is awarded a Purple Heart, and leaves the Marines, but is separated from Rex, who is re-deployed. Thus, she begins an odyssey to reunite with and adopt her best friend.
Though the film starts in 2001, the events of 9/11 dont factor into the story. The writers, Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt, focus on the interpersonal motivations, keeping the world and perspective honed in on Megans experience with Rex. The unspoken yet ever-present undercurrent running throughout is a theme of mental health struggles. Whether or not that was something that the real Megan Leavey faced, its undoubtedly an issue that plagues veterans. For the purposes of the film, these mental health challenges make up the dramatic dynamic of the films story her depression is what motivates her to join up, her trauma bonds her to Rex, her post-war grief spurs her into action.
While that theme simmers below the surface, some of the expositional dialogue can prove to be a bit on the nose. Animals make for good screenwriting devices, as characters can speak their inner feelings to them, but that doesnt make for the most subtle or efficient screenwriting.
As a director, Cowperthwaite doesnt lean into overly dramatic moments, and in fact, they can often waft by surprisingly quickly. While sometimes this results in a personal motivation that feels a bit scanty and shallow, its actually refreshing for this genre. Megan Leavey, despite its story of wartime heroism, isnt a jingoistic, sentimental slice of pure patriotism. Its far more an intimate drama about a personal journey, a story about true love and companionship how showing up for others can help you to show up for yourself. Those lessons are universally useful, and always inspiring.
Walsh writes for Tribune News Service.
MEGAN LEAVEY 2.5 out of 4 stars Rating: PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements. Cast: Kate Mara, Common, Bradley Whitford, Edie Falco, Tom Felton and Ramon Rodriguez Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes Opening: Friday at area theaters