“Megan Leavey” is this summer’s feel-good war dog movie. In a summer full of super heroes, we have here a real hero. And heroine. The movie is “’based on a true story” about a Marine Corporal and her Military Police K9 dog. It was directed by Gabrilla Cowperthwaite. It took four screenwriters to finish the script which is never a good sign. However, that is not likely to discourage the viewing public.
The movie opens in New York state in 2001. Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is living a dead-end life after the death of her best friend. Her family life is a mess and then one day she gets a wild hair and joins the Marines. It’s off to Parris Island for a short training montage. A graduation celebratory pee in the bushes gets the PFC put on a **** detail which is literal because she has to clean out the kennels of the K9 unit. There she meets a dog named Rex who is not looking to make any friends. As in most cinematic romances, you just know these two will get together. Thankfully the movie eschews the lover’s triangle. Before you know it, the duo is off to Iraq. After a couple of routine missions to establish the resumé of a military working dog, Meagan and Rex reach their epiphany by way of an IED. Is this the end of a great friendship?
I wanted to like “Megan Leavey”. I love war movies and I love dogs, so it seemed like a natural fit for me. And I am not saying I disliked it. It is a nice little movie and deserves to do well at the box office. My problem is that it has an unsatisfactory feel to it. The word that comes to mind is “shallow”. Although it clocks in at almost two hours, parts of it seem cursory. Even the montages are truncated. Megan develops a reputation as a problem with no evidence presented. Megan bonds with Rex with little difficulty. Training is barely touched on. The divorced parents pop up to assure us that Megan is better off risking her life in Iraq than being around them. In Iraq, we get only brief tastes of the hazardous duties of Megan and Rex. The movie has some giant time jumps that give the false impression that war for a bomb-sniffing dog team is long stretches between cinematic-worthy suspense. To tell you the truth, the movie does not make a strong case for Megan and/or Rex being a hero. The movie throws in a romantic interest for Megan which is perfunctory. I could best describe the movie as the Cliff’s Notes version of the story.
I’m not trying to be the grinch who stole your feel-good movie of the summer. The movie is nicely made with decent acting. Obviously, Kate Mara is solid and the unidentified dog actor is fine. Does it make sense to say they lacked chemistry? Rex usually appears less than thrilled to see her. Probably that soldier thing where they don’t want to get too invested in a friendship. The cast is fine, but wastes three as the father, mother, and stepfather (Bradley Whitford, Edie Falco, and Will Patton). More time with the dog and less with the glum-inflictors would have been a good decision. The dialogue does not stand out and there are no memorable lines. However, the movie is not schmaltzy and does not jerk tears. It certainly had the potential to require tissues if it had carried the “true story” to its completion (see below). While I am not a big fan of tearjerkers, this movie would have been better if it stuck to the true story better. Or fleshed out what it decided to cover.
Take a break from the usual bombastic summer fare and you’ll leave the theater feeling good. Just don’t expect an Academy Award nominations. And don’t go home and shame your dog.
GRADE = C
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Megan Leavey did not escape a dead-end life by joining the Marines. She was not depressed over the loss of her best friend. In fact, she was in college when she was inspired by 9/11 to serve her country. She was not punished by being sent to the K9 unit. She volunteered for the Military Police and was assigned Rex. He was not a problem dog. He had already been to Iraq with his original handler. Sgt. Mike Dowling took Rex to Iraq in the first deployment of military dogs since the Vietnam War. He later wrote a well-received book entitled Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and his Military Working Dog. The book chronicles their adventures In Iraq and covers how Dowding helped Rex overcome his fear of explosions and gunfire. (Although Dowling has publicly expressed his support for the movie, I have to wonder about his feelings about being written out of it.) I am unclear how Leavey became the dog’s handler, but she must have taken over in Iraq. They did not meet when Leavey was training to be a dog handler. The two spent two tours together. First in Fallujah in 2005 and the second in Ramadi in 2006. The IED incident occurred during the second tour. The movie accurate depicts it. Leavey and Rex both took about a year to recover. Leavey decided not to reenlist and wanted to adopt Rex at this point, but the Marines logically turned her down because Rex had recovered to the point where he could resume his duties. The adoption was not foiled by a bitchy veterinarian as shown in the movie. Several years passed (much longer than the movie implies) and Rex developed a facial palsy that ended his working career. It was at this point that Leavey reinitiated her adoption attempts. She did contact Sen. Schumer from New York, although not personally as shown in the movie. The Senator did facilitate the reunion. Leavey and Rex made the national news and were honored at Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately, they had only a few months together before Rex passed away in 2012. Now you can break out those hankies.
I think most would agree that the movie would have been better if it had adhered to the real story. Remove the lame plotting about Leavey escaping her crappy family and substitute her having to take over a dog that was already bonded to a male handler. I think that cinematic dynamic would have worked better. And add more from the one hundred plus missions the trio did in Iraq. Close with the big finish of Rex dying. Not a dry eye in the house.