Based on a true story and aching with cinema’s uncanny ability to make viewers cry at dogs in danger, ‘Megan Leavey’ is one of the most manipulative movies of the year. Granted, the target audiences likely won’t be bothered by that. If you’re going to see a contemporary war movie or a contemporary dog movie, you’ve gotta expect to have your heartstrings pulled like taffy.
However, for those who aren’t predisposed to enjoy either of the genres in this calculated mash-up, ‘Megan Leavey’ is a tough sit. Even if this wasn’t based on a true story, it would be painfully easy to predict all the plot beats long before they arrive.
As you may have gathered from the title, our hero is Megan Leavey (Kate Mara). She’s a troubled young woman who has been through broken homes, bad relationships, and endless go-nowhere jobs. With a lack of opportunities in her life and a desperation to do good on her mind, Leavey decides to join the Marine Corps. She goes through all the usual boot camp hazing and growth. Eventually, she becomes obsessed with the military combat dog unit (those lovable li’l pups who sniff out bombs on the battlefields).
Gunny Martin (Common) is the man in charge of the operation, and he hazes Leavey hard about her decision, eventually relenting only if she’ll take the most uncontrollable dog. Of course, she wins over both the dog and her superiors. She’s sent to the Middle East and has some successful missions, but one goes horribly poor and lands her in the hospital. She’s sent home, but the dog is not. (Doggie is considered too dangerous for civilian life.) After a lot of depression and thought, Megan fights to have her dog retired and sent home to live with her.
Whew! That’s a lot of plot. It’s essentially a “soldier and her dog” movie and its sequel crammed into two hours. There would be more than enough material here for one movie about the training and battlefield and another about the legal battle to get Leavey’s doggie the respectful retirement he deserves. However, even in an age of franchises, no studio was going to make a two-part Megan Leavey epic, no matter how many shares the news stories got online before the greenlight. As a result, everything feels rushed. Characters are simplified. Drama becomes melodrama. Anything beyond Leavey’s journey is reduced to shorthand and the movie manipulates with maximum impact. It’s cornball, weepy storytelling, compounded between two genres that manipulate the most.
Former documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite (‘Blackfish’) at least mounts it with style and power, proving that she’s suited for narrative features. The battlefield Iraq sequences are delivered with sweaty-palmed suspense and the core character of Leavey is presented with dignity and strength.
Kate Mara does her usual less-is-more approach to acting, maintaining a steely veneer that feels like hard-won strength unwilling to buckle under the pressures around her. She breaks down and bursts out occasionally, but mostly plays the role through controlled deadpan and furrowed brows. It works for the most part and lessens the melodrama, allowing the loud musical cues and battering ram emotional beats of the screenplay to handle all the excess. Mara’s good, the character is strong and Cowperthwaite shoots the story effectively. The trouble is everything around the good work by these two women.
There isn’t a single supporting character on screen who feels like more than a plot device or screenwriting obstacle to Megan Leavey’s emotional trajectory. Cowperthwaite tries to compensate by casting charismatic actors in all the dull roles (Edie Falco, Bradley Whitford, Tom Felton, etc.), hoping they’ll bring something extra. Occasionally that’s true, but mostly it just makes you sad to see the talented actors wasted. All of the doggie performances are good, but the pups are used in the most calculated way possible.
True story or not, this may as well be a bit of 1950s Disney fluff designed purely for a tearful finale. It’s more irritating than involving, and whenever the movie takes a break from the doggie love/sadness, that’s only to trek through even more tiresome rah-rah militarism advertorial propaganda. Much like the sudden emergence of Christian dramas as Hollywood exploitation, feel-good military dramas keep getting cranked out because they play to a devoted audience in theaters and then sell like gangbusters to those institutions and cultures at home. These movies exist only to confirm values and find recruits, not because they have fresh stories that need to be told.
All of that is a long way of saying that ‘Megan Leavey’ is a harmless bit of fluff designed to exploit the simple needs of two very specific audiences – dog lovers and military families. Since those viewers take comfort in having their beliefs upheld and the conventions honored, they should be fine with it. If you saw the trailer, you’ve essentially seen the movie. Some folks like the experience of buying a ticket knowing exactly what to expect without any unpleasant or challenging surprises. Those people deserve ‘Megan Leavey’ in good ways (they should have fun!) and bad (they should get this trash if they want it!). Everyone else likely already decided to skip the movie from the trailer anyway. If you find yourself on the fence, just watch the trailer again and decide if you want to relive that exact experience stretched out over two hours with zero surprises.