“Megan Leavey” is better than its rather plain title suggests. Based on a touching real-life story between one US Marine soldier and her military dog, the movie gives us a vivid, close look into a relatively unknown military subject, and I appreciated its considerable realism and verisimilitude while also moved by its poignant depiction of the strong emotional bond between its valiant heroine and her equally brave dog.
In the beginning, the movie succinctly establishes everything we have to know about Megan Leavey (Kate Mara), a young woman who has been stuck in her unhappy and frustrating daily life in a suburban area of the New York state. When she happens to spot a couple of marines entering a local army recruitment center on one day, she decides to join the US Marine without any hesitation, and we soon see her leaving the house where she has lived along with her divorced mother and then getting on a bus for going to the US Marine training camp located in Parris Island, South Carolina. Right from when she and many other new recruits arrive in the training camp, they are harshly treated by their drill instructors, and we get a quick montage scene showing her and other recruits enduring various difficult things during their demanding training period.
Anyway, Leavey and many of those recruits successfully complete their training in the end, and she is soon assigned to a military camp in California, but she is still not exactly sure about what she should do next now. During one evening, she and two other female soldiers have a rather wild drinking time, and she unfortunately gets caught when she attempts to urinate beside a building in the camp. As a consequence, she is ordered to clean the cages for the military dogs of the K9 unit in the camp for a while, and there is an amusing scene where she tries to clean the floor strewn with dog excrement on her very first day.
In addition to cleaning the cages, she also assists the training procedures for the military dogs of the K9 unit in the camp, and that is how she gets more accustomed to a military dog named Lex. Although their first encounter was not very pleasant to say the least, Leavey comes to find a way to tame Lex and then gain its trust after she is instructed to handle Lex for herself, and that is how she comes to discover her true calling. With the assistance and guidance of her tough but generous superiors, she gradually forms a close relationship with Lex, and they are fully prepared to work together when they are sent to Iraq several years later.
During the second act, the movie focuses on the very risky condition surrounding Leavey and Lex in Iraq. Not long after she arrives in a military camp located near Ramadi, her fellow K9 handler warns her that military dogs and their K9 handlers are frequently targeted by their enemies out there, and she and Lex soon come to experience a number of tense circumstances filled with potential dangers. At one point, they and other soldiers must carefully handle a possibly dangerous vehicle while constantly watchful of the surrounding area, and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who previously made acclaimed documentary film “Blackfish” (2013), did a deft job of dialing up and down the level of tension during that moment. In case of a gritty, intense battle sequence unfolded on a remote spot, she wisely avoids shaky camera work and choppy editing while never losing the immediate sense of danger and urgency surrounding the characters on the screen, and the overall result is as emotionally impactful as intended.
It is during that perilous battle that Leavey and Lex are seriously injured. Once they and others safely get away from the battlefield, she is instantly sent back to US for treatment and recuperation, and she later comes to consider retirement, but she also misses Lex a lot, which also recovers from its injury but is about to be sent to Afghanistan. Naturally upset about her dog being put into another military mission, Leavey tries to prevent that, but it looks like there is nothing she can do, and she accordingly becomes frustrated and exasperated while still being rattled by her post-traumatic stress disorder.
Instead of attempting cheap sentimentality, the earnest screenplay by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt goes for unadorned honesty and sincerity, and its third act smoothly advances as its heroine eventually comes to regain her strong will and then becomes determined to do as much as she can for adopting her dog. It is not much a spoiler to tell you that she will reunite with her dear friend/comrade in the end, but the movie handles its finale better than expected, and that will be more enough for you to cheer for its heroine and her dog.
Cowperthwaite draws solid acting from its main cast members. Ably carrying the film with her strong performance, Kate Mara is believable in her onscreen interactions with the dog in the film, and she is supported well by notable supporting performers including Edie Falco, Tom Felton, Ramón Rodríguez, Bradley Whitford, and Common, who gives an entertaining supporting performance as Leavey’s no-nonsense unit commander.
I must confess that my viewing condition was not exactly ideal, but I could see at least that “Megan Leavey” is a feel-good drama which is both enjoyable and heartfelt, and you will certainly like it if you are fond of dogs. Yes, I still prefer cats, but I will not deny that I could not help but amused and touched as watching the dog in the movie.