Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Megan Leavey is one of a kind. Whether you are a patriot or an animal lover, you will find yourself moved by the inspirational true story of Iraq war veteran Corporal Megan Leavey and her heroic hound.
At once an exposition on war, a recognition of women in service, and a tribute to the special bond between dog and master, Megan Leavey is a respectable debut from first-time director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. With only a couple of documentaries to speak of until now, the film is an exemplary step up for the mostly untried director.
Leavey, portrayed here by Kate Mara, was born in Valley Cottage, New York. The story begins by depicting her directionless lifestyle as she maintains relations between divorced parents, clashes with an insensitive mother, and grieves the loss of her best friend. Amidst struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, she longs for an escape, and to the bewilderment of her parents, finds it in the marines.
As Leavey undergoes basic training and explores the combat dog training program, her past inevitably reemerges to haunt her. She is forced to reconcile her difficulty of forming bonds with others when working with an especially aggressive dog named Rex. The pair begins to connect as they ship out to Iraq, where the two save countless lives detecting hidden explosives on the front lines.
Cowperthwaite’s picture sheds light on the relatively undiscussed subject of canine veterans. After Leavey and Rex survive an explosion, Leavey is awarded a Purple Heart and shipped home. Rex, however, reeling from his own form of PTSD, is deemed unadoptable, and is forced straight back into service. The film proceeds to depict Leavey’s lengthy battle to bring Rex home as she draws attention to the cause through her admirable activism and charitable work.
The role of rough-and-tough Megan Leavey bears a stark contrast to Kate Mara’s more effeminate characters (House of Cards, 127 Hours), and she delivers a dedicated and authentic performance. Leavey demonstrates Mara’s capable range as an actress, and it also provides crucially-needed representation for women in service – who are far too-often subject to ridicule and stereotypes in the media.
Proportional to the impression Kathryn Bigelow left on war pictures The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Cowperthwaite embeds a sense of empathy the subject matter desperately needs. With men at the helm, war films too often regress into glamorizations of violent aggression. In the same fashion Patty Jenkins benefited Wonder Woman, Cowperthwaite escalates Megan Leavey to a higher playing field.
In perhaps the most important moment in the film, Rex pulls Megan down when an Iraqi sniper fires at her head. This scene is an example of when accurate representation collides with what comes across as believable on-screen. There are cases in films where manipulation of true events can serve to enhance credibility, and Cowperthwaite could have executed this scene better.
Despite this noticeable snag, as while as a couple of instances of over-sentiment, Megan Leavey is a stirring drama that gives needed attention to both women and animals in service. Following Patty Jenkins’ stellar Wonder Woman, Leavey is indicative of a movement providing women dignified portrayal in cinema, and a trend that needs to continue.