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Megan Leavey

Posted June 11, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

*heavy sigh* I’m trying to catch up this weekend, but I’m burned out on summer tentpoles. I want to try something a little further off the beaten path. Something smaller, that’s maybe gotten drowned out with all the other hoopla going on. And along comes a little film called Megan Leavey, which somehow flew in completely under the radar and turned out to be one of the better-received films out right now. Yes, this will do nicely.

The biopic is a star vehicle for Kate Mara, here portraying the eponymous Marine. At the start of the film, Megan’s best friend is dead, she lost her crappy job, her family is comprised of idiotic fuckups, and Megan enlists in the Marines just to get out of her shitty home in upstate New York. Long story short, Megan learns about the K9 program and works her way into a training program so she can handle bomb-sniffing dogs. Her assigned partner is Rex, a German Shepard so aggressive that he’s borderline impossible to work with. So of course she strikes up a rapport with the dog.

In 2005, Megan and Rex were shipped out to Iraq. (In real life, they served deployments in Fallujah and Ramadi. In the film, only the Ramadi deployment is portrayed.) Overseas, they sniffed out tons of IEDs and firearms, saving countless lives. Then the two of them got blown up only to get right back on their feet (or paws, as the case may be) and complete their combat mission, earning themselves a Purple Heart and a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for it.

In any other film, that would be the climax. Here, it’s the halfway point.

After some R&R, Megan decides that she’s in no shape to go back into the field, and Rex isn’t performing up to his usual par either. So Megan declines to re-enlist and sets things in motion to adopt Rex. Trouble is, Rex is not cleared for adoption (again, long story) and he gets shipped out to Afghanistan. What follows is an aggressive media campaign — with an assist from none other than Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — that ends with Rex getting retired and going home with Megan.

(Side note: By the end of the movie, Megan is a corporal and Rex is a sergeant. Meaning that technically, the human is outranked by her dog!)

Let’s start with the hot-button issues.

Obviously, any film with this particular subject matter runs the risk of either being jingoistic propaganda, uncomfortably racist, or both. And there are a few times when this movie toes right up against the line of being either one. But it mostly avoids those traps through the nature of the premise.

Consider that Megan starts out as a young woman who utterly despises the town and family she grew up with. Then she’s a woman in the male-dominated Marines, and a newbie among proven soldiers on top of that. Then she’s an American in a foreign country where everything is a potential threat. And then she’s a war hero suffering from PTSD as she struggles adapting to civilian life. All throughout the film, there’s the persistent thread of Megan feeling like someone out of place. It’s a basic and universal notion that the film latches onto, used as a means of taking the edge off a lot of thornier subjects. As portrayed in the film, Megan’s conflict on the battlefield doesn’t really have anything to do with freedom vs. terrorism or white people vs. brown people — it’s all about going into the most dangerous place and time possible, and coming out alive having made it slightly less explosive.

Furthermore, Megan has a very difficult time building attachments with other people. She learns to overcome that quickly, as she fights beside, learns from, and eventually starts teaching her fellow Marines. But of course the most pivotal relationship in this film is the one between Megan and Rex.

Obviously, this serves as a commentary on the relationship between humans and animals. But more than that, the bond between a girl and her dog is such a universal concept (so easily understood by even the most ignorant civilian) that it’s used to comment on a lot of war-related themes in clever and powerful ways. The most obvious example is in the brotherhood between soldiers; the bond that comes with living together, fighting together, dying together, or saving each other’s lives. There’s the tragedy that comes with a comrade dying in your arms, and there’s the terrible uncertainty of not knowing when one of you is going to die. That last part is especially bad when comrades-in-arms are separated and unable to look after each other, as happens in the back half of the movie.

Which brings us to a soldier who can’t adapt to civilian life. There’s the PTSD, the boredom, the lack of routine, the constant paranoia, and so on. But Megan is also dealing with separation from her beloved dog. And anyone who’s been away from their pet (or recently lost their pet) could understand that feeling of constant depression. There’s the lack of a calming influence that used to be so reliably present, and the sudden lack of purpose that comes with losing any loved one. All of these are feelings that dovetail exquisitely with the mindset of a soldier returned from the front lines, used to illuminate the latter viewpoint in a heartbreaking way.

As for Rex himself, the movie very beautifully examines the strange and underappreciated part that bomb-sniffing dogs play in our armed forces. They’re not exactly equipment, even though they’re technically the property of the United States Marine Corps. And they’re not exactly people, even though they go into and return from the battlefield with all the traumas and injuries any human would be subject to.

Naturally, all of these are deeply sensitive subjects to explore, and it’s no small accomplishment that Kate Mara is up to the task. She runs an impressive gauntlet of emotions and actions, admirably holding the screen from start to finish. Also, major kudos to the animal trainers, because the dogs give some of the best performances in this picture.

Alas, the focus is put so heavily on our main character that the supporting cast is left to atrophy. That’s not to say they do a terrible job, it’s just that every single supporting role is utterly thankless and there isn’t a single memorable character in the bunch. Even so, the supporting characters are played by such capable performers as Tom Felton, Common, Edie Falco, and Bradley Whitford, each of whom has a powerful screen presence that helps to leave an impression with very little screen time.

The downside is that precisely because these characters have so little screen time apiece, they’re often played as overly broad for the purpose of conveying more about their characters. A particularly egregious case in point is Geraldine James, turning in a laughably arch performance as a lead veterinarian. The other booby prize goes to Ramon Rodriguez, playing the kinda/sorta/not really love interest. He simply doesn’t have the chops to hold his own against Mara, and his character is so thin that he’s got nothing to work with.

Also, the filmmakers cast Andrew Masset to play Senator Chuck Schumer, inexplicably choosing an actor who doesn’t look the single slightest goddamn thing like the current senior New York senator. Did they honestly think no one would notice? Unbelievable.

A far bigger problem is a tonal disconnect between story and setting. It’s hard to picture a “girl and her dog” story with an R-rating, and it’s just as hard to picture an Iraq war story without an R-rating. This picture erred on the side of PG-13, with visible results. I mean, not that I’ve ever set foot on a Marine facility, but I imagine that there’s a lot more swearing than happens in this film. The filmmakers quite visibly go out of their way to avoid dropping any F-bombs, and it doesn’t feel the least bit natural. Likewise, Mara’s character briefly hooks up with Rodriguez’ character, and they go through all of their trysts fully clothed. Again, that doesn’t exactly feel quite right.

This also extends to the action, because of course we can’t show any blood or dismemberment. So the filmmakers resort to excessive shaky-cam, with heavy dust clouds to obscure the action and enemy soldiers so far away we can barely see them fall over. Then again, there’s only the one huge action sequence at the halfway point (for better or for worse, depending on your preference) and that was never really the most interesting part of the film anyway.

It’s genuinely impressive how much story the filmmakers were able to pack into a mere two hours, given the decade’s worth of ground to cover. That speaks a lot to the film’s pacing, even if there are one or two montages that might have been trimmed down or left out entirely. Plus, aside from that one borderline-incomprehensible action sequence, the handheld camerawork is effectively used.

Megan Leavey examines the Iraq War and its veterans through an angle that hasn’t really been given much exposure, thus portraying a decorated Marine in a way that doesn’t become mere propaganda or xenophobia. The “girl and her dog” story is used as a deeply poignant means of exploring many themes relating to life in the armed forces, and a lot of that is due to Kate Mara’s powerhouse turn.

I don’t know if I can recommend a big screen viewing — there’s so much out right now, and there’s nothing about this film that really demands the multiplex treatment. But when it hits home video, I totally recommend giving it a look.