“I left this place a thousand times in my mind, but I never actually went anywhere,” says Megan Leavey (Kate Mara). That place is home, a small town in upstate New York with an unsupportive mother (Edie Falco) and a kindly but mostly absent father (Bradley Whitford). Megan’s sense of confinement shapes the early scenes in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s movie: trucks, railroad tracks, and a hulking factory form internal frames as she looks off-screen. Her escape is the Marines: it’s 2003 and the war in Iraq is underway, a war the movie uses a backdrop for the story of Megan’s coming of age. Continue reading…
That story concerns Megan’s relationship with her dog, which is to say, Rex, the bomb-sniffing German shepherd assigned to her by the Marines. Their bonding process has them observing each other through cage bars, training at Camp Pendleton (her predictably gruff sergeant, Gunny Martin, is played by Common), finding IEDs in hot dusty Iraq, and surviving an explosion rendered in slow motion, from multiple angles. In Rex, Megan finds a purpose and unconditional love, exactly what she was missing in her pre-Marines life. While she and Rex recuperate back in the States, she spots a dog who’s grieving his dead human partner. Gunny leans over her shoulder to offer this trenchant observation: “Sometimes we don’t realize, as much as they our family, we theirs too.”
For all the good that Megan shares with Rex, the film does note, briefly, a couple of the issues specific to women in the US military. The guys doubt Megan’s abilities, she feels isolated (rooming and showering alone), and she finds a boyfriend, a fellow dog handler (Ramón Rodríguez). (They take care to keep their romance a secret, and the movie doesn’t get into the problems this might pose for them or their unit.) While the film occasionally gestures toward questions and themes that have to do with war, including loss and grief, chaos and order, it remains for the most part in a narrow lane, which is to celebrate what ends up being a sweet but conventional girl-and-her-dog story.
This narrowness is surprising, given the art, edge, and resonance that Cowperthwaite’s previous film brought to another story of humans and animals. The documentary Blackfish examines the relationships of people and orcas, in cultural and personal terms, and in powerfully political terms, such that institutions and individuals are accountable for the choices they make. Megan Leavey is a different film, with a different audience, and a different mission. It never leaves the place where it begins, which is in Megan’s emotional backyard.