Megan Leavey | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | June 9, 2017
Megan Leavey is a simple story about relationships – between a woman and her dog, as well as her immediate family. Scratch that – it’s a little more complicated than that.
Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is the eponymous Rockland County native who, 1) having trouble holding down local jobs due to alcoholism, 2) grown frustrated living at home with her mom (Edie Falco) and potential soon-to-be-step-father (Will Patton), and 3) lost her high school best friend to an overdose, signs up for the Marines. As she monologues in the opening (and only) voice-over, there’s nothing’s keeping her there in small-town suburban New York (partly South Carolina filling in for Valley Cottage, NY).
She toughs it through Parris Island boot camp, and her celebratory night of drinking after getting settled at Camp Pendleton leads to a week of probation cleaning the Marine Corps canine kennels under the watch of Gunnery Sergeant Massey (Common). After meeting the “aggressive” Rex (Varco), she applies herself and gets into the division, slowly working with Rex and forming a partner bond (with help from Andrew Dean (Tom Felton), a veteran handler), before the two of them are shipped out to Iraq for tours of duty in 2005 and 2006. After an IED ambush, Corporal Leavey returns stateside, recovers from her injuries (both physical and mental), and fights to adopt Rex over a 4-year period – even going to Senator Chuck Schumer (Andrew Masset). Care to guess how it ends?
The biopic, the first narrative feature from Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, brings a lighter human tone to the theater of war in Iraq, but the tone overall may be a little too light/optimistic/rose-tinted for a film that deals with finding one’s purpose and bonding with others. The reality and visceral nature of war don’t hit home as much as they did in, say, The Hurt Locker – including the difficulties faced by women serving in the armed forces, for one.
From a relationship standpoint, Megan doesn’t get along with everyone, but how it’s portrayed in the film seems a little out of place. She has few local bridges she hasn’t burned and doesn’t really make any friends prior to shipping out – which is beyond me, from a personal point of view. As for her family, she doesn’t get along all the time with Kathy, her mom, and Jim, her mom’s boyfriend, but the depths of that relationship isn’t fully explored, apart from a few scenes. Bob (Bradley Whitford), her dad, is Megan’s rock and he’s a little more fleshed out, but near the end of the film, he pushes her on in her fight to adopt Rex, which doesn’t quite jive with the “Nevertheless, she persisted” theme (unlike, say, Wonder Woman). And, of course, there’s a romantic partner in the form of Corporal Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez), a fellow K9 handler, but their relationship is slightly developed and their sports rivalry (Yankees versus Mets) and enlistment decisions lead to time apart. But, magically, in the end, all of these relationships work out: Kathy, Jim, and Bob are there to support Megan and Rex in-person at Yankee Stadium, and Matt makes a Jumbotron Skype appearance.
Another thing that Megan Leavey struggles with is connective tissue and a sense of time. While the film takes place over a decade or so, the characters don’t appear to age. The timeframe doesn’t really factor into the plot of the film, apart from the text mentions of Megan’s time serving and the end real-life context. That takes something out of the experience, not having a concrete sense of the progression of events. There are also several character moments that happen out of nowhere (one related to Tom Felton, who is barely in the film), which took me out of the film. Between the relationships and the discernable timeframe concerns, there’s some heft missing from Megan Leavey. Perhaps it’s not quite straddling the line between war film and biopic well enough. It’s not a knock-out punch, but more of a light jab on the shoulder.
As a biopic, Megan Leavey is straightforward and at times predictable – maybe a little more so than life is – but hits the right notes. Sure, there are some liberties taken with the events of Megan’s life, as with any biopic, but it’s a compelling story and you’ll likely be wiping away some tears by the time the credits roll.