Sometimes it’s the simplest of tales that make for the greatest of films, especially in the right hands. Take the story of corporal Megan Leavey for example, a U.S. Marine who bonded with a combat dog to become a dynamic duo who saved countless lives and earned the Purple Heart. Brought to life by Bleecker Street, “Megan Leavey” the film is an inspiring, heart wrenching true story that trades in over-the-top action and drama for emotion and heart.
“Megan Leavey” stars Kate Mara as the titular Marine who escapes a troubled home life by running away to enlist in the armed forces. While there she proves to be an average, poorly disciplined soldier and after a night of debauchery is sent to clean up the military working dog pens as punishment. There she meets Rex, an equally antisocial and unruly canine. Inspired to become a handler herself, Leavey works hard to march up the ranks and after Rex injures his initial handler, she is charged with becoming Rex’s new partner leading the two of them to two tours in Iraq where an ambush injures both Leavey and Rex who still proceed into battle, earning the two the Purple Heart. As their individual destinies with the armed forces force them apart, Leavey works hard to reunite with her canine companion and adopt him upon his retirement from the armed forces.
I have to start off with a compliment to Kate Mara as the titular soldier as I’ve actually seldom enjoyed Mara on the big screen. While she has shined in smaller roles on the small screen, this is the first time I’ve truly felt Mara held her own as a full-fledged star of the show, making Megan Leavey feel relatable and real rather than an over-played dramatized version of the real-life soldier. Maybe the persona she portrays isn’t exactly like her real-life counterpart, but Mara owns it and presents a believable interpretation of Megan Leavey the person and the soldier. Her portrayal of a troubled Marine is spot on, driving home every emotion and flaw to perfection. To put it bluntly, I believed this performance. I want to see more of this from Mara because I finally feel like I saw what everyone else sees in her, a quality and effective actress who can really hold her own in the spotlight. I thoroughly enjoyed it and in my opinion it’s one of the most stripped down and smooth acting performances from any film in 2017 so far.
That being said Mara is not the only actor who holds her own in this film. Rapper Common plays the stern, but human Gunnery Sergeant Massey who serves as a harsh leader to Leavey as she is working her way to becoming a handler while, surprisingly enough, Draco Malfoy himself Tom Felton turns in his own impressive performance as Andrew Dean, a veteran dog handler who guides Leavey in the ways of working with her canine partner and becoming an effective team. Ramón Rodríguez, Edie Falco, and others also turn in exemplary performances, driving home the drama of Leavey’s life and helping compliment and contrast Leavey’s lone-warrior mentality in many ways without being relegated to simple background roles. Each character Leavey interacts with serves as their own person while also providing a key to Leavey’s own backstory and character growth.
I was amazingly shocked at how tasteful and stripped down this movie was, and it was gripping too, presenting smooth storytelling that took a simple tale of heroism and stretched it into a very complete big screen experience. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who previously produced the controversial documentary “Blackfish”, continues a strong push for female directors in 2017 by taking such a grounded approach to a tale worth telling. On paper this story seemed like it was cut-and-dry, but the direction and screenplay add so much more to Megan Leavey’s life and time with Rex that anyone with a heart will leave the theater with a slightly better outlook on life seeing as Leavey was able to find happiness and companionship by escaping her world to the armed forces, but not with her fellow soldiers. She found it with a dog who was just as much of an outcast as she was in her own life.
If I had to comment on any detracting factors of this film it would be the script, which offers many great moments but also, at times, can come off as forced. Situational exposition is abundant in this film as Leavey is constantly bickering with her mother about her mom’s shortcomings, things that they as people shouldn’t need to remind themselves of and are clearly added in to allow the audience an understanding of their damaged relationship. Many films do this and it is essential in a lot of cases, but here it’s not the most polished aspect of a film that is otherwise a very smooth and fluid moviegoing experience. While every other aspect of the film allows the audience to interpret and understand who these characters are on the inside, who they are as people on the outside is thrown in our faces to give us some context and could have been approached a bit smoother in the writing process. Still, even this flaw can be forgiven as the effective acting performances help level out the bumps in the script and make even the most cringeworthy moments seem genuine.
If you see any drama films in 2017 I suggest you put this one near the top of your “to see” list. “Megan Leavey” is a surprisingly real and powerful tale of two heroes who deserve the attention they got through this big screen adaptation. It does its source material justice and offers an inspiring and very grounded story that we don’t see too often in theaters nowadays with many real-life stories being built up and dramatized to draw in ticket sales and pander to an audience seeking more forced emotional responses. While the later approach is not necessarily a horrible way of presenting a story in my opinion, it’s delightful to see a project that is able to keep it simple and make it work and I think that in itself makes “Megan Leavey” a delightfully surprising gem for 2017.