Movie review: 'Megan Leavey' paints powerful portrait of two war heroes -- a Marine and her dog

Kate Mara

Kate Mara Courtesy of Bleeker Street Media

Megan Leavey’s true story sounds like a jingoist bro’s wet dream: A down-and-out woman joins the Marines, turns into a proficient marksman, teams up with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd named Rex, and comes out of Ramadi a war hero.

So you might expect Megan Leavey, the movie, to be 1 hour and 56 minutes of schmaltzy propaganda. But director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes a more human approach. This focused tale of the Iraq War is balanced and informative, giving us a detailed view of both Megan Leavey the person and an oft-overlooked, valorous military function.

Following some abrupt plot jumps showing Megan’s life before the Marines, Megan Leavey drops our hero into stateside training. After Megan (Kate Mara) gets caught drunkenly urinating outside a superior’s office, she’s put on literal shit detail, cleaning out dog kennels. Megan, who is described as not good with people, encounters a similarly misanthropic canine named Rex and decides she wants to be a dog handler.

Here we’re given an in-depth look at how the Marine Corps’ canine units operate. For those unfamiliar with the inner workings of different military sections, it’s fascinating to see the level of training necessary to even get in the door. The highly coveted position of USMC dog handler requires first-class PFT (Physical Fitness Test) ranking, top exam scores, and high rifle qualifications, among other stringent requirements.

Leavey seems like an unlikely candidate, but her short time in the Marines and a deep desire to work with the K-9 unit bestow her with enough determination to make the cut. After Rex breaks multiple bones in his current handler’s hand, Leavey is paired up with the antagonistic pooch. Again, sheer determination enables her success, and after major struggles with Rex, the two form an indelible bond. It’s now time to ship out.

Cowperthwaite succeeds on multiple fronts in her first dramatic feature. It’s no surprise given her documentary background (she produced Shootout!, a TV show detailing famous gunfights, as well as 2013’s Blackfish) that she would skillfully flesh out such a specialized field in a short amount of time. But Cowperthwaite also manages a balancing act with her depiction of the military.

Even movies that aim to show the horrors of combat often end up making war look overtly badass. Cowperthwaite’s approach toes the line: Leavey’s actions are indeed badass and heroic, and shown to be such, but the director also explores the negative physical and psychological effects the bomb-sniffing role has on both dogs and their handlers. Additionally, Cowperthwaite pokes at certain authoritarian and misogynistic aspects of military and macho culture. It may seem obvious, but having a female director was necessary to fully tell Megan’s story.

On the flip side, Cowperthwaite doesn’t seem to have quite mastered a biopic-scale dramatization, as the movie is uneven on the bookends. The middle section, spent in training and at war, feels untold and new. The third act lags and feels too telegraphed, and it doesn’t compete with the engaging second act. That’s partly not Cowperthwaite’s fault—that’s how actual events transpired. And given it’s her first narrative feature, this is a solid effort. While it likely won’t go down as a classic war movie, Megan Leavey has enough novelty and substance to make it worth a watch.

Megan Leavey
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Starring: Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez, Tom Felton
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Area theaters, starts Friday