Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Cast: Kate Mara, Common, Ramon Rodriguez, Edie Falco, Bradley Whitford, Tom Felton, Will Patton, Geraldine James
MPAA Rating: (for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:56
Release Date: 6/9/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 8, 2017
Megan Leavey tells the story of a Marine, who has had a difficult time finding her place in the world, and her dog, which has some issues of its own. There's not much of a story here, considering that the movie is more concerned with events than characters and that those events are leading to something of a preordained conclusion. Even so, it's a movie that is focused on pushing a few emotional buttons, and looking at the movie from that perspective, there's some success here.
Yes, the screenplay by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt is manipulative to a certain extent, but there's also something to the notion that not much happens in this story. The movie is based on a true story, of course, and usually, that raises some alarms about the veracity of the fiction compared to reality. Everything that happens here is so low-key that it at least feels authentic. No big speeches save the day. There are no serendipitous coincidences to help our protagonist along the way. There isn't some villain that needs to be put in his or her place. Things simply happen, thanks to a lot of work and persistence—mostly the latter.
Part of that feeling of authenticity comes from the screenplay, but it's mostly a product of direction and performance. The movie's director is Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a documentary filmmaker making her first foray into narrative filmmaking. Certainly that background has some sway here, and it might account for the fact that the movie, which has plenty of opportunities to push those emotional buttons hard, doesn't feel as manipulative as it could be.
The central performance is from Kate Mara, who plays the eponymous character. Hers is a performance that doesn't push too hard, either. That's a compliment. She's playing a character who begins, in 2003, as a down-on-her-luck, directionless woman living a dead-end life in a town in Southeastern New York. There isn't much to her—no goals, no passion, no desire. Her only thought is to leave this place, where her mother Jackie (Edie Falco) constantly yells at her and her only friend has died. She's more a shell than a person.
Megan decides to join the United States Marine Corps because a sign outside a recruiting office promises an escape. She ends up in Camp Pendleton, California, for the usual training montage, but after graduation and a disastrous reunion with her mother (who asks if she'll get compensation if her daughter is killed), a nighttime trip to a bar leads to an act of public urination. That leads to her being punished with working with the camp's canine training unit—cleaning out the pens and serving as a target for takedowns.
The character's transformation from screw-up to dedicated Marine comes in the form of a German Shepherd named Rex. Rex is the most aggressive dog in the unit, trained to sniff out explosive materials. He barks something fierce, and his bite can and does break bones. After working hard to become part of the unit, Megan is assigned Rex by Gunnery Sergeant Martin (Common). By the time the duo is ready to leave for duty in Iraq, Rex is sleeping in Megan's room.
The focus here is the bond between Megan and Rex, and perhaps the most accomplished aspect of Mara's performance is how she plays that relationship. It doesn't suggest that she sees the dog as a pet, but neither does she suggest some professional distance from the animal. There's an odd generosity to her performance for the canine performer. Mara allows there to be a give-and-take between them in such a way that a genuine sense of partnership develops. One of the movie's more effective scenes has Megan sitting almost inside of Rex's kennel with a blanket over them, as she tries to distract the dog from the loud roaring of the plane taking them overseas.
The movie's view of the war is without any opinion, save for the fact that it's hell (Before the unit ships out, Tom Felton plays a Marine who briefs them on the reality of the situation in Iraq, in a scene that serves as both as foreshadowing and an early sign of the movie's stance of being disinterested in politics). Megan and Rex move up from military checkpoints (a tense scene without a resolution, which seems right) to joining missions, going ahead of convoys to search for improvised explosive devices. A human-human relationship develops between Megan and another Marine (played by Ramon Rodriguez), but it's dramatically inconsequential compared to a sequence in the desert, in which Megan and Rex work to save each other and then an entire squad.
The third act of Megan's story is a fight with military bureaucracy to obtain ownership of Rex (The dog belongs to the corps, and his temperament has him labeled unadoptable). This section doesn't reach the affective levels of what has come before it, partly because it only acknowledges Megan's struggle with PTSD, without exploring it any further, and also because we know how this story will end (Let's face facts: They wouldn't have made this movie if the real story had turned out differently). The preceding setup to this section of Megan Leavey works well enough at pushing the right buttons, but the movie doesn't land that final, emotional punch.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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