Review: 'Megan Leavey' Effectively Honors Our Soldiers Of Every Species

We don't normally think of pet movies and war films as going hand-in-hand, but maybe we should. The bond between soldiers mirrors the devotion between a Marine and her combat dog, Rex, in the stirring if frustratingly straight-forward biopic Megan Leavey. In exploring the emotional connection between human and animal, the film tells an effective story of redemption that does its real-life subjects the honor they deserve.

In a too-rare leading performance, Kate Mara brings an understated intensity as Megan, who is told early on from a former boss that she doesn't "really connect with people very well". Of course, she's told this just as she's being fired from a dead-end job, the latest in an apparent string of them. Megan is drifting through life after the death of her best friend, not really caring much about her good-for-nothing mother (Edie Falco), the wayward father (Bradley Whitford) she never sees, or anything else. On a whim she signs up for the Marines, hoping this irrational decision will turn out better than all of the others. While it does provide her the strict structure she apparently needs, a drunken evening earns her a punishment cleaning the kennels in the K-9 unit.

It's there that she meets another troubled spirit, Rex, a bomb sniffing German Shepard deemed to be too aggressive.  The two bond, sensing in one another an outsider status that has dogged them (no pun intended) all of their lives. Megan decides to get her act together in order to attain the status of dog handler so she can work with Rex, although her gruff commander (played by Common) doesn't seem to think it will ever happen.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite last made an impact with her documentary, Blackfish, which pulled the curtain back on the treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld.  It was a movie with a message and a call to action, but also found room to chronicle that spark between audiences and the whales putting on a show. So it's no surprise that here she focuses mostly on the relationship between Megan and Rex, and not so much on the complexities of the war itself. The screenplay credited to Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt makes the barest of passing references to the politics of the miserably unnecessary Iraq War, and the decision-makers who so callously sent soldiers there, soldier like Megan and Rex.

It's impossible not to think of Megan and Rex as a duo, as soldiers-in-arms on equal footing with one another. When an IED injures them both, in a heartbreaking scene made more terrible by Rex's determination to continue on, the film shifts to that of soldiers coping with PTSD. Megan isn't the only one dealing with the trauma of her experience, and if the screenplay is most effective at anything it's making us realize that combat dogs suffer in much the same way. You'll never think of them the same way when this movie is over.

The lack of detail and intricacy becomes a problem as the film shifts again to Megan's public campaign to adopt Rex, who she gets separated from after their injuries. We see Megan making lots of phone calls, which are mostly rejected, and her pleas are shot down due to an overzealous veterinarian who says Rex is unfit to be adopted. And while an encounter with Senator Chuck Schumer to gain his support in her adoption efforts is clearly meant to show the extent Megan went, it also opens up the question of why she didn't make this a larger campaign for ALL combat dogs to be adopted. It remains such a self-contained effort that it comes across as a little bit selfish rather than magnanimous as it was meant to.  But that may be a result of too much being left on the cutting room floor, as Megan's story feels oddly truncated in just about every way. It's also possible Cowperthwaite is just playing things a little too restrained, keeping her distance the way any good documentarian should.

Fortunately, where Megan Leavey succeeds is in the interactions between Mara and her canine co-star, Varco, the dog who plays Rex in the majority of shots. The film pays proper tribute to our soldiers, ALL of them, even the four-legged variety, in a subtle but moving way.

Rating: 3 out of 5