For reasons I’m not sure I can explain, I felt the need to resist this film at first, because on the surface it felt like it was using cheap sentimentality to garner any kind of emotional reaction I might have had to it. Let’s be honest, a film about a military combat dog who saves countless lives in the field sniffing out IEDs and other weapons on the front lines of Iraq is almost too many triggers to set off the tears and warm feelings. But Megan Leavey turns out to be a film that goes out of its way to steer clear of easy emotional moments and provides a story about two broken personalities that find comfort in each other both on the job and as war-torn veterans after their time of service.
Kate Mara plays Marine Corp. Leavey who has joined the Corps to escape her unhealthy home life living with her mother (Edie Falco) and stepfather (Will Patton). On base, she discovers a K9-training unit led by Gunny Martin (Chicago rapper Common) and asks to be a part of the process. After a few false starts, she is paired with a particularly aggressive dog named Rex, and over the course of many months, she finds a way to both bond with the animal and train him for combat conditions.
When she lands in Iraq with Rex, she meets another dog trainer, Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez), who becomes her best friend in the country. He informs her that since women aren’t allowed anywhere near combat, she and Rex will only be allowed to work checkpoints, but even that is dangerous work as she discovers that the local insurgents will often target dogs like Rex, kidnap them, strap a bomb to the animal and send it back to its trainer—a reality that only serves to add yet another layers of tension to the film. But after Rex and Leavey prove themselves, it isn’t long before the two are right there among the troops seeking out and finding IEDs on more than 100 missions.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (who made the fantastic 2013 documentary Blackfish) Megan Leavey isn’t really about a dog in combat; its true focus is on the relationship Rex forms with Leavey, especially after both are injured during an explosion. Before Leavey is sent to a hospital, the two finish their mission like heroes but then are separated while each recovers. Leavey’s injuries are enough that she is taken out of service, but Rex is sent back in and she spends the better part of a year worried to death about him and going through the paperwork to adopt him when his time in the service is up.
The movie tracks her struggle, attempting to work through the complicated bureaucracy that is the military in order to bring Rex home with her. When this seems impossible because of a short-sighted vet who deems Rex un-adoptable, she falls into a deep depression, moves in with her real father (Bradley Whitford), and continues the fight. With a film like this, there’s little doubt how things will turn out, but the filmmakers certainly make us feel every disappointment and setback that Leavey went through in the long process.
Mara has long been something of an under-appreciated commodity as an actor, but she’s a reliable presence in just about everything she’s in. That being said, the performance she gives as Leavey is easily among her finest and most moving, and it makes the movie worth experiencing, although a great deal of it takes place with her in emotional agony. The film is impactful without being flashy or overly polished. It’s rough around the edges, not unlike its subjects. If you’ve already seen that other film about a woman in combat, helmed by an excellent female director, maybe give this one a try as well.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.