Based on a true story, “Megan Leavey” is a unique movie about war. It’s a story of heroism, sacrifice and connection forged on the battlefield, but it’s remarkable in how the story it tells is so deeply personal that it obfuscates the political. The focus is on the troops, as it should be, and in this case, troops whose stories haven’t always been seen on screen — the women and the canine.
Named after the woman who protected soldiers in Iraq with her IED-detecting K9 officer, Sergeant Rex, “Megan Leavey” might be a story about war, but it’s much more a tale about the bond between humans and animals. “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite was recruited to direct her first narrative feature by star Kate Mara, who was inspired by Cowperthwaite’s animal advocacy with the Sea World documentary.
Leavey (Mara) signs up for the Marines as a way out of her dead-end life, and she finds a purpose. As a female K9 handler in Iraq during the height of the conflict in the early 2000s, she is out in front of the front lines before women were even allowed in combat, and Cowperthwaite captures that queasy sense of unease and terror of walking out into unknown territory, bombs potentially anywhere underfoot. Wounded in an explosion, Leavey is awarded a Purple Heart and leaves the Marines, but is separated from Rex, who is redeployed. Thus, she begins an odyssey to reunite with and adopt her best friend.
Though the film starts in 2001, the events of 9/11 don’t factor into the story. The writers focus on the interpersonal motivations, keeping the world and perspective honed in on Megan’s experience with Rex. The unspoken yet ever-present undercurrent running throughout is a theme of mental health struggles. Whether or not that was something that the real Megan Leavey faced, it’s undoubtedly an issue that plagues veterans.
While that theme bubbles below the surface, some of the expositional dialogue can prove to be a bit on the nose. Animals make for good screenwriting devices, as characters can speak their inner feelings to them, but that doesn’t make for the most subtle or efficient screenwriting.
As a director, Cowperthwaite doesn’t lean into overly dramatic moments, and in fact, they can often waft by surprisingly quickly. While sometimes this results in a personal motivation that feels a bit scanty and shallow, it’s actually refreshing for this genre.
Rated: PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, thematic elements. Starring: Kate Mara, Common, Bradley Whitford. Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Running time: 116 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18.