“I left this place a thousand times in my mind, but I never actually went anywhere,” says Megan Leavey (Kate Mara). That place is home, a small town in upstate New York. The first few moments of Megan Leavey underscore her sense of confinement as Megan looks off screen, framed by trucks, railroad tracks, and hulking factories.
“I had nothing,” Megan goes on, as the film illustrates with a few seconds of her unsupportive mother (Edie Falco) complaining loudly into her phone, “She’s not gonna sit in my goddamned house and do nothing.” A next shot in the why-I-need-to-leave montage shows Megan not doing nothing, but instead, working a “dead-end job”, entertaining children in a hospital. In another movie, such activity might suggest Megan’s nobility of purpose, Here, however, she’s fired when she comes to work hung over: “You don’t really connect with people very well,” observes her supervisor.
In just a couple of minutes, then, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s movie makes clear that Megan is desperate for change, but yet, Megan keeps explaining: “After my best friend died,” she says, “I checked out of life completely.” Her salvation comes in the form of a Marines recruiting office, which, in this fictionalized version of a true story, appears on the sidewalk before her just when Megan seems most in need. It’s 2003 and the Iraq war is underway.
As its title indicates, Megan Leavey is not interested in the war as such. What it offers instead is the story of her journey, heartfelt and well acted, but never surprising. Megan is at first a typically unprepared recruit at Camp Pendleton, where another montage shows her not shooting straight, not keeping up on the obstacles, drinking and misbehaving. As punishment, she’s assigned to clean bomb-sniffing dogs’ cages, at which point she discovers her calling. Again and again she asks Gunny Martin (Common), “Do you have a dog for me?” and again and again he puts her off, until, at last, a misfit German shepherd named Rex needs a handler. He’s a “good detection dog”, everyone agrees, even if he is prone to bite his handlers.
No surprise: he doesn’t bite Megan. “Everything you feel goes down leash,” explains Gunny Martin, “If you’re not confident he’s not confident. I can’t train you how to bond.” But you can guess how that will happen, which is to say, in another montage: Rex and Megan stare at each other through the bars of Rex’s cage, they sleep with each other in the cage, they do their drills, they earn the respect of their fellow trainees. It’s not long before they’re headed to Iraq. A veteran dog handler (Tom Felton, yes, Draco Malfoy grown up), warns, “Everything you think you know will just go to shit as soon as you’re in country.”
For Megan, this is true and not true. She’s never been one to trust what she “knows”, as you’ve seen. While the movie makes brief note of the difficulties she faces being a woman in the Marines (she bunks alone, she showers alone, the guys make fun of her), for the most part, this sort of knotty politics is subsumed by her devotion to her dog. This romance becomes the thematic filter that makes it okay to distrust “hajis”, as the US Marines derogatorily deem locals (she’s instructed that if she shares her dog’s name with a little boy at a checkpoint, she risks the enemy using the name to call the dog so they can strap a bomb to him).
It’s also the filter that makes Megan’s work — and her life, eventually — worthy. When she and Rex are caught up in an IED explosion (in dramatic slow motion, shot from multiple angles), both are injured. Still, she says after a long, earnest look into Rex’s eyes, both are ready to complete the mission. “He’s fine,” she insists, “We can do this.” Her fellow Marines stand back, as the duo, intrepid and in sync, does indeed seek out more weapons, before both are shipped off to separate recuperation facilities.
Kate Mara as Megan Leavey
No matter that the military has no interest in sustaining this relationship. In Rex, Megan has found a purpose and unconditional love, exactly what she was missing in her pre-Marines life. (Rex’s side of the romance remains unexplored, but the movie isn’t named for him.) Back at Camp Pendleton after the IED explosion in Iraq, Megan spots a dog who’s grieving his dead human partner. Gunny Martin leans over her shoulder to offer this trenchant observation: “Sometimes we don’t realize, as much as they are our family, we’re theirs, too.”
Such sentiment, of course, is familiar to anyone who’s met a dog or watched one in a movie. But translating the truism into a compelling story can be complicated. Megan Leavey relies on conventions to make its case, some less effective than others. The charm and intensity of Megan’s bond with Rex turn other relationships into distractions. So, for instance, though Megan seems to have a decent relationship with her hardworking dad (Bradley Whitford), they mostly talk about her dog. And, as soon as Megan beings a relationship with a fellow dog handler (Ramón Rodríguez) — which, incidentally, grants them a chance to bond over their experiences of misogyny and racism in the military — you’re waiting for it to be over, because: Rex.
At last, the story of Megan becomes the story of Rex, in the sense that she fights for his right to come home with her, rather than be termed an “asset” whose PTSD makes him unsuited to retire as a “pet”. This is an argument worth making, and it is Megan Leavey‘s most persuasive purpose. This purpose is of a piece with that of Cowperthwaite’s previous film, Blackfish. That movie made a passionate case against the abuse and exploitation of orcas, a case based largely on the personal testimonies of people who work with them.
Blackfish pressed its point beyond just one instance, however, and mounted a potent political critique of using animals as entertainment, holding institutions and individuals accountable for the choices they make. Megan Leavey is a different film, with a different audience, and a different mission. It never leaves the place where it begins, which is in Megan’s emotional backyard.