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Review: Megan Leavey – A True(ish) Tale about a Marine and her Dog

Megan Leavey feels like a movie that started out as a pet project, gained momentum as a pet project, and made it to the big screen as a pet project, complete with some decent actors and, in the case of the screening I attended, a heartfelt introduction from Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. His office was instrumental in helping real-life Marine corporal Megan Leavey adopt Rex, the bomb-sniffing dog that served alongside her in Iraq. If you’re a sucker for a tale about a woman and her dog, then Megan Leavey is there for ya. Hoorah.

Here’s the gist: Megan Leavey, a young woman craving direction and purpose in life, joins the Marines in 2003. She doesn’t relate well to people. But she forms a bond with a feisty German Shepherd named Rex while training at Camp Pendleton. Together, they are deployed to Iraq to search for hidden explosives. They find a lot of IEDs. They save a lot of lives. They get wounded. They come home. She stays home. She tries to adopt Rex. A military vet deems the dog “unadoptable” because of his temperament. Rex gets re-deployed. Leavey spends the next few years fighting to bring Sgt. Rex home so he can live out his final days with her in upstate New York. (Note: Schumer was offered a cameo to play himself, but declined.)

Kate Mara (House of Cards, The Martian) does an admirable job as Leavey, but her talents are a bit wasted here, as are those of Bradley Whitford (The West Wing, Get Out) and Edie Falco (Sopranos, Nurse Jackie) who have minor, under-developed roles as Megan’s parents. The film tries to make up for an uneven narrative by biting off more than it can chew, cinematically-speaking. Megan Leavey is a war movie, a chick flick, a biopic, a dog movie, and a ‘lost girl from a broken home struggles to find meaning in life’ movie. As such, it continuously drifts into cliché territory. There are (very light) shades of The Hurt Locker-type tension whenever Megan and Rex go out on a dangerous mission; there’s a love interest with a fellow Marine; there’s tension back home with her divorced parents; and there’s rapper Common attempting to channel Louis Gossett Jr.’s iconic drill sergeant character from An Officer and a Gentleman.

Megan Leavey is directed by Gabriela Cowperhtwaite, best known for the killer whale documentary Blackfish. Perhaps the original intent was to make a documentary about the challenges and triumphs of Megan and Rex. But I suspect the raw elements simply weren’t there to create a full and compelling narrative, prompting the need for some major “creative license” (you can read some of the fact versus fiction comparisons here). The end result is a serviceable feel-good movie about love, war, sacrifice, and beating the odds. Megan Leavey is opening on 2,000 screens across the U.S., but easily could (and probably should) have been a television movie instead. It’s not a must-see. Save it for the plane.

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