A true story so pure that it almost grants its teller the permission to be sloppy, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Megan Leavey” is a bit of a mess from the moment it starts, but it’s hard to completely dismiss any movie with a soul this strong, just as it would be hard to dismiss a disobedient puppy so long as its tail keeps wagging. An unlikely mutt that crossbreeds the cuteness of “Must Love Dogs” with the suspense of “The Hurt Locker,” “Megan Leavey” is the kind of movie that writes itself, and often feels as though it has.
Based on the very real, very believable bond between a young marine corporal and the volatile German Shepherd with whom she partners during her tours of duty in Iraq, this broadly engaging drama is gripping when it deals with the details of being a woman on the front lines, and it’s just as effective when grappling with the relationships that form on the battlefield and the sense of purpose that they can provide the people who need it. But the film, much like its eponymous heroine, is utterly lost when it comes to making sense of civilian life.
Beginning with an expository voiceover that never returns — always, always a sign of an bumpy narrative — “Megan Leavey” introduces its namesake (a compellingly naturalistic Kate Mara) as she slumps along a bus stop near her hometown in upstate New York. The year is 2001, though it looks the recession has already swept through the area, and Megan is completely aimless. She’s frustrated with her mom (Edie Falco in a thankless role), she’s got no patience for the man who’s auditioning to be her new stepfather (Will Patton), and she misses her best friend, who died of a drug overdose when they were in high school. Megan isn’t a menace, she’s not a troublemaker or a burnout, she’s just lost. And maybe a little difficult. “You don’t really connect with people very well,” a woman says while firing Megan from her job hosting kids’ birthday parties.
But then, as it happens, Megan sees two marines walking into a mall recruitment center, and the next thing she knows she’s suffering through basic training somewhere down south. After that, she’s just one pissed off superior away from being assigned to clean the kennels where they keep the bomb-sniffing dogs. Rex is the most aggressive animal the program has ever had, and Megan is scared to death of the massive hound (who looks more bear than dog), but his bite brings out her bark, and it isn’t long before the two of them are unearthing insurgent ordnances in the Middle East.
Mara is a strong actress, someone who trusts in her own ability to infuse a calm degree of grace into every scene. Even when the movie around her threatens to cheat towards easy sentiment and sweeping histrionics, Mara keeps things grounded in a resolutely human place, taking everything as it comes and looking for any hints of the love that might see her through. When she searches for bombs during an (extremely tense) scene at an Iraqi checkpoint, Mara is scared, but not too scared. When she learns that women aren’t allowed to join on official military missions, she’s barely pissed, and certainly not righteous. And when a landmine detonates neat she and Rex, she’s very brave — they both are! — but not G.I. Jane. Her performance feels real, and so her character’s relationship with the dog feels real as well.
Cowperthwaite, whose only previous feature is the lightning rod documentary “Blackfish,” obviously has a deep concern for animals, and her film bends over backwards to remind us that Rex is as much of a soldier as Megan, and eventually as much of a veteran as well. The expressive German Shepherd (for the most part played by a dog named Varco) is virtually never used for cheap sentiment, his cuteness is never exploited. Yes, the combat scenes are twice as harrowing because he and his handler are both in harm’s way, but Cowperthwaite trusts that our empathy will be easy to come by, and she refuses to exploit our concern; this is a broadly accessible character study, not an emotionally pornographic recruitment film.
To that end, “Megan Leavey” is at its best when it hones in on its title character, subtly isolating her so that she’s on her own out there. Even once Megan is saddled with a hunky romantic interest who turns the movie into a bizarre love triangle between a man, a woman, and her dog, the film palpably conveys how isolating it can be for women in the armed forces, both abroad and at home. There’s no doubt that Megan needs Rex every bit as much as Rex needs her.
But if the script (credited to Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt) never loses its emotional integrity, its structural integrity is another story. When Megan returns home, is separated from her four-legged partner, and left to figure out the rest of her life, the movie immediately seems as lost as she does. The years slip by in an uncertain jumble, and a mess of supporting characters flit in and out of the story without meaningfully contributing to Megan’s emotional state. She misses her dog, but the film has little sense of how to dramatize that — it’s a bold, character-driven decision to downplay a Purple Heart to this extent, but had the years that comprise the story’s second half been more effectively compressed (the whole third act could fit into a montage), then we could have spent more time with Megan and Rex on their missions, and the ending would have been far more powerful as a result.
As it stands, the movie’s power never pops off the screen. “Everything you feel goes down leash,” Megan is advised, and we see that the inverse of that is true as well, but the film short-circuits that emotional exchange when it should be electrified by it. Fortunately, a greater truth survives this story, lingering throughout the inevitable Eddie Vedder song that plays over the end credits and long after: Real heroes are made, not bred.
“Megan Leavey” opens in theaters on Friday, June 9.