Based on the true story of a United States Marine dog-handler who served in the Iraq War, “Megan Leavey” is a gripping film that powerfully conveys an emotional bond forged between warriors of different species. Expertly directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, “Megan Leavey” succeeds both as a war film and as a psychological study of the challenges and dignity of military service.
“Megan Leavey” features two characters whose evolving relationship structures the film – Corporal Leavey and Rex, the German Shepherd whom Leavey adopts after his retirement. Kate Mara’s subtle and captivating performance as Leavey anchors the film. With her deep but understated sense of alienation driving her to military service, Mara is believable both as a soldier doing the difficult work of bomb detection and as a damaged soul building emotional strength alongside her canine colleague.
Rex, played primarily by Varco, is also integral to the film’s achievement. Whether it is in quiet moments of downtime or high-stakes war zone patrol, Rex’s presence wordlessly channels the profound sense of camaraderie at the heart of the film’s vision of heroism.
Cowperthwaite’s excellent directing makes “Megan Leavey” memorable. Avoiding the sentimentalism or cynicism that mars many war films, Cowperthwaite chooses a realistic approach that convincingly respects both military service and the devastation caused by war. Through careful pacing, Cowperthwaite gives us a complete picture of a veteran’s experience – from recruitment to training, to battlefield horrors and heroics, to the challenges of post-war life. Interlacing intense combat scenes with sublime moments such as the solemn honoring of a fallen marine or an entire baseball stadium’s heartfelt thanking of veterans, Cowperthwaite presents soldiers as both dignified warriors and vulnerable humans.
Cowperthwaite makes exquisite use of sound. Expertly managing the film’s music (fantastically scored by Mark Isham), Cowperthwaite never lets volume overwhelm the proceedings. The frequent use of ethereal music and quiet moments deepens the film and lets actors’ performances resonate. We experience the emotional power of Leavey revealing a defining sense of loss to fellow dog-handler Corporal Morales (played wonderfully by Ramon Rodriguez), and the spine-tingling paranoia of desert patrols where an explosion threatens any second to disrupt the subtle sounds of wind or warning flags being placed in dirt.
Cowperthwaite also delivers breathtaking camera work. Her use of a shaky camera to convey wartime intensity works especially well, contrasting meaningfully with moments of calm that grace this well-paced film.
The film is filled with excellent supporting roles. Chief among these is Common’s performance as Sergeant Gunny Martin. Common projects a fierce concern for the soldiers he trains for combat, conveying both dignity and intelligent compassion. Tom Felton is compelling as Sergeant Dean, whose thoughtful advice to Leavey comes from horrific wartime experience, while Bradley Whitford movingly portrays a father who aids and inspires his only temporarily traumatized war-hero daughter.
3 ½ stars (out of four)
Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez and Common star in true story of a traumatized war veteran and her dog. Rated PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material and thematic elements. 116 minutes.