Megan Leavey

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Megan Leavey  (2017)    Bleecker Street/Drama    RT: 116 minutes    Rated PG-13 (war violence, language, suggestive material, thematic elements)    Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite    Screenplay: Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt    Music: Mark Isham    Cinematography: Lorenzo Senatore    Release date: June 9, 2017 (US)    Cast: Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Will Patton, Sam Keeley, Common, Edie Falco, Geraldine James, Shannon Tarbet, Miguel Gomez, Jonathan Howard.

 

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 God bless the US military and all who bravely served. I hope it’s okay to open a review on such a patriotic note but it’s what I felt as the end credits started to roll for Megan Leavey, a compelling true-life story about a girl and her dog. The girl in question is Megan Leavey, a Marine corporal who served in Iraq with her combat dog Rex, trained to sniff out bombs, explosive and weapons. Together, they saved many lives and distinguished themselves in combat (Leavey was awarded a Purple Heart). Theirs is an inspiring story of bravery and heroism. A different kind of fight ensued after they left the battlefield. That’s where Megan Leavey truly distinguishes itself.

 meganleaveyposterDirected in efficient style by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (the documentary Blackfish), Megan Leavey opens by showing us the titular character’s life before joining the military in less than five minutes. In that short time span, we learn that she’s an aimless sort who sleeps all day, lives with her unsupportive mother (Falco, The Sopranos) and unemployed stepfather (Patton, Remember the Titans) and works a crappy part-time job from which she gets fired because she’s “not good with people” according to her boss. Her best friend has recently died as well. Basically, Megan’s life is going nowhere fast. Then one day, she spots a couple of Marines wearing their finest walking into a recruitment center. She decides to join up and hops on the next bus to Paris Island where we follow Leavey through boot camp by way of a quick montage. Cowperthwaite doesn’t waste a lot of time on the set-up; she prefers to get to the heart of Leavey’s story as quickly as possible.

 Leavey gets off to a rocky start in her new career as a Marine. She gets caught drunkenly urinating in public and, as punishment, is assigned “s—t detail” which means literally that. She gets sentenced to a week of cleaning out the cages at the K-9 unit. She decides she likes what she sees and signs on after proving her worth as a soldier. Eventually, she’s assigned her own dog, a temperamental, hard-to-handle German Shepherd named Rex, the combat dog everybody fears most. Determined to show that she’s up to challenge, she trains and trains with Rex until they’re finally ready for deployment to Iraq to aid troops in detecting deadly explosives. It’s explained to her by fellow K-9 handler Morales (Rodriguez, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) that they already have bounties on their heads, ones that are even higher for female dog handlers. Leavey’s a bit shaken but not deterred. They have a pretty good run until they’re both wounded by an IED.

 Back at home, Megan formally requests to adopt Rex who’s clearly no longer fit for service but the heartless veterinarian deems him “unadoptable”. He’s ultimately redeployed while Megan deals with a harsh case of PTSD. After a while, she resumes her battle with military higher-ups over adopting Rex, the dog that taught her about love and connecting with others. Since this was big news at the time, we know there’s a happy ending in store for Megan and Rex. Megan Leavey allows us the chance to get to know the human and canine subjects which makes their story more personal. There’s not that sense of removal you have in a story you just read about or see on the news.

 Megan Leavey is a fine example of straightforward storytelling. So many filmmakers today feel obligated to spell out every single detail of a story and its characters that something is lost in translation. Megan Leavey is a model of efficiency. Cowperthwaite tells Leavey’s story in a way that allows us to understand her without everything being said. For example, we understand that her primary motivation for joining the K-9 unit is a desire to connect with somebody else, never mind that it’s a dog. The director also refrains from casting big-name stars with box office draw. Kate Mara (House of Cards) delivers a wonderful performance in the title role. It’s her understated performance that gives Megan Leavey much of its power. There’s this one scene at a support group where Leavey quietly breaks down while talking about Rex. A scene like this could have easily gone wrong had Mara overplayed her hand with a lot of dramatic histrionics and a long monologue. Cowperthwaite gets it exactly right by having Mara not “perform” or “act”. She doesn’t tell the audience how to feel with a close-up shot or an overly melodramatic score. She keeps it real and authentic. As a result, the emotions one experiences are organic and unforced.

 The whole cast does a fine job from rapper Common as Leavey’s K-9 sergeant to Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) as Leavey’s supportive but useless biological father. Tom Felton (aka Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter universe) is especially good as a K-9 trainer who gives Leavey the most valuable piece of advice she’s ever likely to receive: “Everything you feel goes down the leash.” The screenplay is well-written; the dialogue sounds real and unrehearsed. Look at the scenes between Leavey and Morales. The play-fight over baseball teams- both New Yorkers, she’s a Yankees fan and he’s a Mets fan- and ever start a brief romantic relationship. That we never know if they resume that relationship is one of the movie’s few hiccups. The scenes in Iraq are scarily realistic and wrought with tension. The one big battle scene is particularly well-done in that it’s not one of the confusing, shaky-cam, over-edited deals where it’s hard to tell what’s going on. You can tell exactly what is happening, who’s doing what and why.

 Megan Leavey is one of the summer’s best films. It’s heartfelt and genuinely moving. It’s well-made in every respect. It also honors all those who served. It’s a loving tribute to the soldiers that often go unrecognized, the ones with four legs and a tail. The bond between man/woman and dog is a strong one, especially in stressful combat situations where both parties have to trust each other 100%. Megan Leavey is inspirational but isn’t afraid to show the realities of life after combat. It’s not easy to transition back into civilian life, especially when it wasn’t so great before joining the military. We’re talking a life with a mother who not only shows up late for her daughter’s graduation ceremony, but also has the nerve to ask if she’s named as beneficiary if her daughter dies in combat. I’m very impressed with Megan Leavey the movie and Megan Leavey the person. And, of course, Rex (who died in 2012). God rest his soul. Good boy, Rex.

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