“In the film world, we can all be heroes,” acclaimed Welsh actor John Rhys-Davies told film writer David Sztypuljak in a 2011 interview. “In the real world, where heroism can cost you your life or the life of the ones you love, people aren't so willing to make those sacrifices. When they do, they are set apart from the rest of us.”
Following Rhys-Davies’ thought, most films about heroism strive to balance a stereotypical portrayal of valor with a realistic depiction of human behavior. But what if one of your film’s heroes isn’t human? Such is the case with Megan Leavey, the mostly true story about the bond between a disillusioned young Marine corporal and her military dog, Rex, during and after the Iraq War.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish), in her narrative-feature debut, and starring Kate Mara (House of Cards), the film is too shallow in its focus to shed much light on the nature of heroism in either humans or dogs. Megan Leavey is instead a paint-by-numbers, though competently designed, production. And though the screenplay, direction and performances never reach a level of intelligence one would hope for, the film hits enough right notes to recommend a viewing, especially for those with a soft spot for animals and an interest in military stories.
Perhaps befitting its canine subject, who is presumably incapable of comprehending either death or politics, the movie avoids any discussion of the morality of war or the placement of non-consenting animals in harm’s way. Rex is simply doing his job because that’s what he’s trained to do, and writers Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt presents an objective, non-opinionated view of that job. However, the script does enter the realm of editorial – and rightfully so – in the second half when Leavey fights to adopt her dog following their final deployment.
“I’m trying to give a war hero a home for the last few years of his life,” Leavey says. Even her superior officer (the rapper Common, in a charismatic but over-the-top turn) agrees, admitting, “[Dogs] come back with all the same issues we do.” Her self-centered mother (Edie Falco) and stepfather (Will Patton) might not fully understand Leavey’s love for her canine partner, but she does get support from her boyfriend and fellow Marine (Ramón Rodríguez) and her father (Bradley Whitford). The film doesn’t get much support from the latter two, though, as Rodríguez is underwhelming and Whitford underused.
It’s best to know nothing more about Leavey going in, but even if you do, you should still appreciate this fairly effective emotional tribute to two war heroes. Unfortunately, you might find it difficult to forgive some of the predictability, mediocrity, over-scoring and handheld camera. And you’ll probably be able to tell that the dog playing Rex is reacting more to the animal handler than to Mara, who mostly carries the film by herself. But it’s difficult to deny the basic story’s feel-good, patriotic patina, which hits you in the gut more often than you might care to admit.
Leavey is told toward the beginning of the film that she doesn’t “connect with people very well.” It’s both fitting and ironic then that a war begun by humans, into which she entered reluctantly, led her to become a champion for animals.