Armies have been using dogs in battle for thousands of years. The Romans would turn the dogs on their enemy as a signal of the approaching legions, hence the expression “Let loose the dogs of war”. But in recent decades dogs have found a new, perhaps more noble calling during wartime. Dogs have been used to search for lost soldiers. They have been trained to assist wounded soldiers. They have also learned to sniff out explosives, helping to clear mines and saving the lives of their handlers and hundreds of soldiers and civilians. That’s the kind of dog Rex is. And you’ll fall in love with him just as the titular character Megan Leavey did. The movie Megan Leavey is a bit of a character study, and one of those characters is a German Shepherd.
Kate Mara stars as Megan Leavey. Her life has been pretty much a screwup, and she’s facing pressure to get it together. She decides to join the Marines. At first it appears she’s going to fail at this choice, too. But slowly she begins to get her training on track and starts to make the grade. Her inspiration? She is attracted to the canine unit, where she is first sent for punishment, but discovers Rex. Rex is a dog the vets don’t think is trainable. He’s aggressive, and very much like Megan, has a mind of his own. So Megan puts in the extra effort in the hope she can join the unit and work with Rex. Of course, she ends up getting her wish, and the two are sent to Iraq, where they are able to save lives by finding mines so they can be disarmed. It’s a dangerous job, and their number ultimately comes up. It seems the enemy targets these dogs to protect the minefields. Wounded, the pair return home where the true battle is fought. The vet has labeled Rex unadoptable, and Megan fights to allow him to retire with her.
The film is an ambitious one that tends to have some trouble with pacing. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is relatively inexperienced, and it shows throughout the production. She is, of course, best known for the controversial Blackfish documentary that led to an economic backlash against parks like Sea World. Fortunately, it’s that animal passion that shows through here and saves a film that could have been instantly forgettable. Credit actress Kate Mara, who really gets her first chance to carry a film here and proves she has the chops to do it. There’s some heartfelt chemistry here between Megan and Max, and it does a lot to overcome the sluggish pacing. The film avoids the usual saccharine kind of person-dog relationship and builds this one on deeper stuff that rings more true than contrived. You’ll find yourself engaged enough to have the patience to weather the overlong 2-hour runtime. That’s a tall order, and Mara truly pulls it off.
When I talk about pacing issues, they have more to do with a relentless journey down too many side tracks that never completely play out, so that a good 40 minutes of the film is throwaway plot points and needless clutter. There’s a romantic relationship that develops out of nowhere and ends up going the same place. All the while the Iraq segment appears truncated and leaving me wanting to see more of the heroics and bonding between Megan and Rex. The tragic incident comes far too quickly, particularly when you measure it against the excessive fluff. I think the final third of the film would have been much more powerful.
Megan Leavey has an impressive supporting cast that includes: Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Edie Falco (The Sopranos), Will Patton (Falling Skies), Common (Hell On Wheels) and Tom Felton (The Flash).
In the end Cowperthwaite is still thinking with a documentary mentality. We need more than just the facts and the necessary emotional beats. Too much time can be spent building a story so that not enough is spent telling the story. Even with the baggage, Megan Leavey manages to shine and is worth the time to watch. You’ll leave with an emotional reward that strikes at the heart of dog lovers in particular. “There’s no crying in baseball or the Marines … or maybe there is.”