Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Before any other credits roll across the screen, a familiar phrase materializes: “based on a true story”. And what a remarkable story that is. After the death of a close friend leaves her aimless and depressed, Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) joins the Marines in an effort to get out of her mother’s home and find some direction in life. Not even the rigid discipline of military life does the trick at first; after getting caught drunkenly misbehaving outside a superior’s office with some friends one evening, she’s assigned to clean-up duty in the K9 unit kennels as punishment. It’s there that Megan first meets Rex, a German Shepherd with behavioral problems of his own. Although not much of a “people person”, something about the K9 training program provides her that sorely needed spark of motivation. With a great deal of persistence, and a touch of serendipity, Megan is finally assigned a dog of her own to train: Rex.
They complete over 100 missions together in Iraq before both are injured by an IED. When she chooses not to re-enlist Megan hopes that she’ll be allowed to take Rex home, but the Marines’ veterinarian classifies him as “unadoptable” and he’s assigned to a new handler instead. This touches off a years-long fight to be reunited with her partner and provide him with a loving home after his service is over.
Megan Leavey is first and foremost a movie about the relationship between a soldier and her canine partner. As the former, Kate Mara turns in a mostly satisfactory performance. She succeeds in navigating the subtle shifts in energy and drive that bring Leavey her sought-after peace of mind, although she does not quite manage to show her as troubled as the script wants to insist she is. The dog (or dogs) portraying Rex are especially charismatic; the two build up a compelling rapport during their time together and anchor the film’s strongest scenes. Edie Falco gets the most out of her brief appearances as Megan’s unpleasant mother and Bradley Whitford makes you wish he could stick around longer as her refreshingly supportive father. Common (yes, that Common) acquits himself well as the Gunnery Sergeant overseeing the K9 unit, while Ramón Rodríguez provides some human companionship as a fellow K9 handler.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (whose documentary Blackfish garnered quite a bit of attention several years ago) seems to have consciously aimed for the more inclusive PG-13 rating, which bestows a touch of a sanitized feeling to the story. Thankfully this does not extend to the few patrol scenes which, despite staying essentially bloodless, maintain a remarkable level of tension. Cowperthwaite chooses not to delve too deeply into the grimmer realities of combat and PTSD, but this leaves room for Megan Leavey to succeed as a feel-good movie with lots of heart firmly focused on the bond formed between two war heroes who brought out the best in one another.