'Megan Leavey' hits some patriotic highs but feels out of balance

Posted June 9

“MEGAN LEAVEY” — 2½ stars — Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez, Tom Felton, Common, Bradley Whitford, Edie Falco; PG-13 (war violence, language, suggestive material and thematic elements); in general release

Based on the real-life experience of a Marine dog handler in Iraq, “Megan Leavey” features some intense battle sequences but feels like more of a dog-lover movie than a war hero movie.

We meet Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) as she’s floundering in life in the months before 9/11. She’s unable to keep a steady job because she struggles to connect with other people, and her dysfunctional home life just makes things worse — her parents are divorced and Megan doesn’t get along with her mother, Jackie, (Edie Falco) or Jackie's live-in boyfriend, Jim (Will Patton).

Then one day Megan walks by a Marine recruiting station. A few scenes later, Megan is working her way through boot camp and starting to get some traction in life, but it isn’t until she gets assigned K-9 cleanup duty after a hard night of partying that her purpose becomes clear. If Megan can’t relate to people, maybe she can connect with Rex, the snarling German shepherd getting trained to sniff out IEDs in Iraq.

With a little hard work and persistent campaigning, Megan manages to tame both Rex and her superior officer Gunny Martin (Common), winning a position as a dog handler and a deployment to the Middle East. This is where things really get interesting — and tense — as Megan and Rex set about their patrols, working to protect their fellow soldiers from Iraqi insurgent forces.

The scenes in Iraq are particularly well done, as director Gabriela Cowperthwaite mixes the expected tension of the war with the unexpected tensions between Megan and the soldiers around her — according to “Megan Leavey,” K-9 units are considered an unwelcome and unfortunately necessary evil. Megan and Rex see some success until, during one especially memorable encounter, an IED blast puts their future in jeopardy.

Once Megan and Rex return from Iraq, it gradually becomes clear that “Megan Leavey” is less of a war movie than a dog-lover movie. The time in Iraq is comparatively short — especially considering the film is intended to celebrate their over 100 successful missions together — and quickly gets set aside as the narrative refocuses on Megan’s efforts to adopt Rex and retire to a civilian life.

While there’s technically nothing wrong with a movie about a woman and her dog, the intensity of the war context makes the adoption conflict appear mild by comparison, if not inconsequential. Based only on what you’re seeing on screen, it’s difficult to understand how the subject matter justified the movie.

“Megan Leavey” also features Bradley Whitford as Megan’s biological father, Bob, and Tom Felton as a veteran dog handler she meets during her training. Ramon Rodriguez plays Matt Morales, a fellow Marine who tries to develop a serious relationship with Megan but encounters some of the same problems that led her to the Marines in the first place.

If you’re a patriotic dog-lover, “Megan Leavey” may scratch your itch. But if you’re a patriotic dog-liker expecting a gripping war drama, your itch may persist on the way out of the theater.

“Megan Leavey” is rated PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material and thematic elements; running time: 116 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.


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