'Megan Leavey': The Story of a Dog and His Girl

Megan Leavey is not interested in the Iraq war as such. What it offers instead is the story of her journey, heartfelt and well-acted, but never surprising.

Megan Leavey

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Cast: Kate Mara, Ramón Rodríguez, Tom Felton
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Bleecker Street Media
Year: 2017
US date: 2017-06-09 (General release)

"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.







Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.