Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
I suppose that all you need for a screenplay is a human being and a dog and the rest manages to write itself.
But even in that case, Megan Leavey is a very good film beyond the chemistry between a Marine corporal and a combat dog we watch develop and flourish throughout the course of two hours. It's a generally well-paced but consistently well-acted drama that avoids the hazards of emotional manipulation and cheap pathos by thanks to its ability to find a sweet balance between its characters and the events that test their relationships.
The titular character is played by Kate Mara, who you might recognize from the most recent reboot of Fantastic Four, last year's horror film Morgan, or maybe the Netflix show House of Cards. Either way, Mara finally gets to prove herself in a role that accentuates her talents rather than dropping her in any given role. After being disillusioned and alienated by her recently divorced parents and the death of her best friend, Megan joins the Marines in hopes to reignite a purpose in her life. A die-hard New York Yankees fan, almost to a fault, she quickly assimilates to the strict procedural drills and passes boot camp with flying colors.
Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez, Tom Felton
9 June 2017
Steve's Grade: B
After getting caught intoxicated and urinating in public, Megan is sent to clean the kennels of the combat dogs. Being inspired by the gifted work of these animals, Megan operates with the intention of getting to train her own military dog one day, and gets the opportunity shortly after being introduced to Rex. Despite being a wickedly talented dog with an unmistakable sense of smell, Rex is a bit temperamental and touchy, occasionally getting into trouble by biting the servicemen. Early on in their relationship, Megan establishes a communicable but respectful sense of dominance and leadership, which leads the two to being deployed to Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraq in 2005.
It's in Ramadi where Megan and Rex are severely wounded by a bomb blast that sends them both flying. Nonetheless, the two are back out in the fields a few months later, just not together, as Rex has been reassigned to a younger Marine. Megan desperately tries to adopt Rex, but a veterinarian bills him as "unadoptable" due to his frequently erratic behavior. It's this reason and PTSD that render Megan barely functional when she returns home from Iraq for good; the only companion in her life has just been taken from her and his future is unknown to her despite her constant calls and messages to the Marines.
Mara plays Megan with a subtle strength and loyalty to her beloved canine that we've come to demand out of leading roles in these kinds of dramas. Rather than allow the cuteness of Rex or the frequent bouts of puppy love to speak for themselves, Mara doesn't want to be sidelined in a role that could easily be eclipsed by Rex taking over as the star of the film. The quartet of screenwriters (Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, Tim Lovestedt, and Jordan Roberts) create a nice level of equality between Megan and Rex in recognizing and showing that before they were paired up with one another, they didn't have anyone.
Even the supporting performances are of strong caliber, particularly rapper Common giving the best performance I've seen from him in a film as Megan's Gunnery and Sergeant when she decides to pursue the career of a combat dog trainer. Also look out for Parker Sawyers (Barack Obama in Southside with You) and Bradley Whitford (the father in Get Out) in supporting roles.
But what I really appreciate about Megan Leavey is its refusal to give into the obvious exploits of its tear-jerking premise. It earns the tears it got from me, and I presume the many more it will merit out of others. Every year we are treated to films that explore the bond humans have with so-called "man's best friend," and in the past couple of years we've gotten winners like Max and losers like A Dog's Purpose. With Megan Leavey, we get one that respects the bravery and honors of its real-life Marine and doesn't look to milk her story for jingoist nonsense on top of also getting a compelling story about an animal that doesn't feel like it's making up for a lack of convincing or authentic emotions. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) keeps a stable hand as a director even when the film turns violent and reminds you the power and impact of any given moment when you're in front of the frontlines of danger.
If you really wanted to see a dog's purpose unfold in a good film, hopefully you held out after being tempted at the beginning of the year for Megan Leavey.