Telling a war story on film is a hard task. One could argue it is among the toughest genres to put onto the big screen. It requires a delicate balance of visual story telling and emotional impact without being manipulative. That tricky balance needed is probably why there isn’t many made. In some respects, Megan Leavey is more of a story about a person. It has a centralized focus. The movie uses the war to tell its true story, but the attention isn’t paid to the war. In fact, Megan Leavey has nothing to say about war, and that’s okay. Megan Leavey is an effective film. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any means by following a fairly generic formula. However, it is able to overcome its flaws with an unwavering concentration on the movies stars, the solider and her dog.
Kate Mara (House of Cards, Shooter) stars as the title character. Leavey is a misguided soul who has no ambition or drive. In order to get out of her hometown and away from her unsupportive mother (Edie Falco) and step dad, Megan enlists in the Marine Corps. The movie does a admirable job of setting up its main character in the first few scenes of the films. Megan is a die hard Yankees fan, seemingly troubled and trying to find direction. Life hits her hard when she gets to boot camp. Her world, as most characters in boot camp scenes find, is thrown upside down.
After graduation, Megan still hasn’t quite evolved. She faces discipline for drunken antics and is forced to clean dog cages, and that’s where she meets Rex. Temperamental and aggressive, Rex draws the ire of the veterinarian. Megan wants to be a dog handler, and eventually we get to the meat and potatoes of the story. Megan evolves when she learns from and watches the dog handlers. Perhaps, all she needed was something to care about. Mara isn’t necessarily the best in this role, and I’ve always found her to be a little underwhelming as a lead. But she is capable enough despite some cringe worthy line delivery in spots during the movie. Despite that, Mara gives a good enough performance to help elevate the movie in certain spots.
What makes the movie work as well as it does is director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s vision for the film. Cowperthwaite who besides having a cool last name keeps the heart string pulls to a minimum. In a story that involves a war hero and a dog, there is inherently lots of emotion to be found. The way this film is framed keeps the emotions mostly authentic which is rare for inspirational stories like this one. She also does an excellent job of establishing tension in scenes that demand. For her only other directing credits being documentaries, Cowperthwaite expertly weaves past the typical cliches this genre of film can often succumb to.
There are certainly flaws to be found here. The crucial scene (spoiled by the trailer) is a bit confusing and messy in it’s execution. We never really are told the motive of the mission and on the surface seems to be set up just we can get to a certain point in the film. When that scene does happen, the movie seems to push a little quickly to wrap things up. We get a sense of the work Leavey puts in to adopt Rex but much of it is lost in the pacing of it all. It also struggles to balance the different tones it is trying to achieve.
Megan Leavey is an effective piece cinema. It isn’t a prestige Oscar contender but a worthy piece of dramatic character study that isn’t too manipulative. It’s refreshing to see this type of film let the source material do the emotional heavy lifting instead of creating moments to tug at your tear ducts. It’s well cast for the most part, crafted with care and has an incredible true story to boot. Megan Leavey will pull some of the proverbial feels out of you, but its apolitical look at wartime story will leave you satisfied. It’s authentic and earnest and is a welcome change of pace for the traditional summer slate.