Megan Leavey is the rare kind of film that’s both decent for what it is and a missed opportunity given what it could have been. As a character study that begins as a military drama and evolves into a look at how soldiers process PTSD, it’s solidly constructed, if standard and not particularly groundbreaking. It’s a film with a great hook, considering that the soldiers in question are a woman and a bomb sniffing dog instead of a traditional male narrative, but the swap in gender/species still gives way to the exact same story conventions that most military films fall into. It’s not hard to praise what’s good about documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s first fictional feature, but it’s also easy to see where it’s liberally cribbing from other films instead of forging its own path. In spite of any criticisms, it’s also a film that’s difficult to feel any ill will or skepticism towards because it technically isn’t doing anything wrong.
Megan Leavey is based on the true story of its titular soldier, played by Kate Mara, a U.S. Marine corporal and wayward soul trying to find her purpose not only in the military, but in life itself. After a night of hard partying and bad decisions finds Leavey working off her punishment by cleaning out the kennels of dogs recruited to help with the current war efforts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the soldier discovers a role in the military that she might like to be a part of. She begs the leader of the program (Common) to give her a dog of her own to train with. Although many are skeptical of Leavey’s abilities and dedication as a soldier, she’s eventually paired up with a Rex, the most troublesome, irritable, and untrainable dog of the bunch. The pair of outcasts bond well and are shipped off on a mission to Ramadi, Iraq. They’re so good at their jobs that Megan and Rex are able to go out on actual missions, a major vote of confidence since female dog handlers were previously only allowed to work at checkpoints. After a shootout in the middle of a minefield leaves Megan injured and forcibly sent home to recuperate, Rex is left behind to continue the mission. Megan knows that her days in the Marines are numbered, and she would like to give Rex a proper home once his tour of duty is done, but the dog’s temperament and military bureaucracy will make Megan’s altruistic aims nearly impossible.
The dog aspect of Megan Leavey doesn’t come into play until almost a quarter of the way into the film, giving viewers time to get to know what the main character is going through. Leavey joins the Marines post-9/11, but not out of a sense of patriotism. She joins because she lost her best friend and she blames herself for his death. She’s not a typical duty bound soldier, but she also doesn’t seem like she has an outright death wish. Mara does a fine job of portraying Megan as equal parts broken and confused. She’s a strong woman cast adrift by circumstance and guilt, and these early moments where Cowperthwaite allows the viewer to get to know her are more interesting and valuable than the well acted, but relatively stock sequences of Leavey going through the throes of PTSD following her tour of Iraq. The time spent with Leavey before she meets Max are invaluable to forgiving some of the more clichéd material that arises later in the film. She’s flawed, but as the film goes on, we see that she’s still capable of being a great friend to those around her, and that’s the journey the character needs to go on in the first place.
The middle hour largely focuses on Leavey’s training, tour of Iraq, and her recuperation process, and this is the portion of the film that’s both necessary and least interesting. The characters are either stock hard-asses (especially Geraldine James as a sneering veterinarian who hates Rex) or kind souls who want to help Megan realize her potential (Ramon Rodriguez as a potential love interest, Tom Felton, playing a nice guy for a change, as a seasoned dog handler). Cowperthwaite injects the wartime sequences with a suitable amount of tension and suspense, but there’s not much on display here that hasn’t been seen countless times before. Our guides through such a world might be different, but the dynamics are the exact same. It all looks authentic, and Cowperthwaite plays things as apolitically as possible, so Megan Leavey never feels like it’s simply going through the motions despite looking and moving like an unquantifiable amount of war pictures that have come before it.
But as Megan and Rex start unravelling thanks to the stresses of their job and the story centres around a custody battle, that’s where Cowperthwaite begins to lose the most interesting thread of the story. The final half hour of Megan Leavey raises the most interesting question posed by the material: should animal soldiers be afforded the same level of comfort and care once their time in the military is done that their human counterparts get? This line of questioning seems custom made for Cowperthwaite, whose incendiary documentary Blackfish asked a lot of similar questions about how working animals are treated and the stresses they’re forced to endure, only this time instead of animals who entertain, the animals in question are literally protecting human lives.
Megan’s efforts to give Rex a level of comfort befitting of a retired soldier are admirable and worth rooting for (especially since Rex will likely be put down otherwise), but since Megan Leavey has spent almost 90 minutes by this point on other matters, the thrust of the film gets hurried over in an effort to make the film clock in at barely under two hours. Cowperthwaite barely gets to scratch the surface of what make’s Megan and Rex’s story so special, and the struggle to get people to take notice gets reduced to the titular character canvassing for petition signatures in strip mall parking lots and googling U.S. senator contacts. This thread also has to compete for screen time with an underdeveloped subplot where Megan tries to reconnect with her estranged father (a good, but miscast Bradley Whitford, playing well against type as a blue collar working man). The film’s main reason for being ends up coming off like a post-script or an afterthought.
I can’t help but think there’s a better film that could have been made by deleting most of Megan Leavey’s rote, but enjoyable middle hour and expanding on the final thirty minutes. It wouldn’t have any action sequences, but the drama would be vastly more developed and the themes would present themselves better. If it sounds like I’m being harsh on what’s ostensibly a well meaning film, I apologize because I don’t mean to be. Megan Leavey is one of those films that you want to be better than the ultimate sum of its parts, and it never totally or consistently rises to the challenge. Still, it’s not a film I would talk anyone out of seeing. It’s a well crafted war film in spite of its clichés and adherence to genre tropes. Megan Leavey is good for what it is, but it could have been excellent if the emphasis had been moved to more interesting places.