“Megan Leavey” Movie Review

     Making her feature directorial debut, Gabriela Cowperthwaite ensures “Megan Leavey” moves with a purpose, as each and every scene is utilized for full visual and dramatic impact.  Megan Leavey is a real life Marine Corps Veteran, who served two tours during the Iraq War, having been deployed to Fallujah in 2005 and again to Ramadi in 2006.  Her job?  Leavey was a Military Police K9 Handler, responsible for sniffing out IEDs ahead of U.S. troop convoys as they looked to pass through various roads within enemy territory.  Cowperthwaite’s film tells Leavey’s story, focusing on her development as a Marine and the bond she established with her military combat dog, Rex.  Following on the heels of the well publicized success of Patty Jenkin’s “Wonder Woman”, it seems only appropriate that “Megan Leavey” comes shortly after, since Leavey is essentially a real life version of the beloved super hero.

     Cowperthwaite’s narrative structure comes at the audience in rapid fire fashion.  No scene lasts very long, nor do they contain unnecessary exposition.  Instead, each is composed to have maximum impact, whether it be visually or through dialogue.  Ideas and images are communicated as if the film was given a time limit, perhaps indicating the sense of urgency both for Leavey to turn her young life around, as well as the split second decision making necessary to survive on the battlefield.  The script, written by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt provides a very human authenticity to the procedural aspects of the Marine Corps, indicating what those who serve already know.  They are simply people like everyone else.  They come from the same backgrounds.  They have the same problems.  And they react to and experience emotion in ways that would seem all to familiar to a civilian who may look at military people as being robots.  That said, “Megan Leavey” also indicates there is something that separates those who serve, as the willingness to put their lives on the line for the freedoms we have here at home comes through in every scene.

     Leavey, played by Kate Mara in what is by far her best screen performance, is a young twenty something still reeling from the loss of a close friend, as well as her parent’s divorce that came as a result of a family crushing blow when it was revealed her mother was cheating on her father.  She isn’t the bubbly type who can easily blend into social settings, nor does she excel doing medial dead end jobs which seem to get her no where.  Her mother, Jackie (Edie Falco), is getting fed up with her lack of direction and motivation, scolding her for her perceived lack of respect and her habit of sleeping all day while accomplishing nothing.  The scene in which Leavey is walking aimlessly around a strip mall and sees two Marines dressed in Class A uniforms make their way through the doors of a recruiting office must have set something off within her, because in the very next scene, she is getting off a bus at the Marine Corp Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina.

     Following training, Leavey is stationed at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, and isn't well received by her superiors.  For disciplinary reasons, Leavey is assigned to a week long detail cleaning up after Marine Combat Dogs who, along with their handlers, are training to become bomb sniffing dogs in Iraq.  There’s no indication as to why, but Leavey almost immediately sees herself as a K9 Handler, and makes her intentions known to the unit’s supervisor, Gunny Martin (Common).  Her persistence ultimately pays off, but she earns it and in the process has the respect of those around her.  The transformation from being an aimless young person to a Marine K9 Handler is astonishing to behold, particularly since we know going in this is a true story.  It’s a testament to what the Military can do for someone.  There is no doubt it can bring out the best in a person and allow them to showcase abilities they likely didn't know they had.

     Cowperthwaite skillfully balances the relationships Leavey has with both her superiors, as well as her peers and allows the character to exhibit the skills she learns early in the film while training with Rex as she makes her way through the dangers of being in a war zone.  The relationship she develops with a fellow K9 Handler, Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez), lends a welcome outlet to the otherwise stressful daily grind her job requires.  The sequences in Iraq are as gritty and suspenseful as anything you will see this year and at no time will you even consider the fact Leavey is a woman, since she operates with all of the same skills and abilities of her male counterparts.  To put it another way, she is a Marine and there is no question her pairing with Rex saved countless lives during the over 100 missions both participated in.  The bond they shared is undeniable, and the third act provides for several moments that illustrate what Leavey and Rex meant to one another.  “Megan Leavey” is both a heartwarming and inspiring true story, but it is also a satisfyingly patriotic offering which accurately depicts the ugliness of war while saluting the men, woman, and service dogs who continue to put their lives on the line each day so all of us can continue to lead a better life.  GRADE: A