Friday, June 9, 2017

Megan Leavey: A doggone good tale

Megan Leavey (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for war violence, dramatic intensity and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.9.17

Next time my parents grouse that movies aren’t like they used to be, I’ll point them toward this one.

Newly deployed in Fallujah, Iraq, Cpl. Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) and her explosives-
sniffing dog, Rex, are assigned to detect the improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
hidden in and alongside the road on which their vehicles need to travel.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Megan Leavey is a straight-ahead drama with plenty of heart, told in the uncomplicated manner that marked family-friendly movies back in the day ... and I mean that as a compliment. Scripters Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt tell this story efficiently and poignantly, without needless emotional angst, and Cowperthwaite ensures that the narrative doesn’t slide into manipulative bathos.

Best of all, this is a true story: one likely to be remembered by those who followed the saga’s final chapter in 2012. While events have been compressed — as often is the case, with big-screen adaptations — Cowperthwaite and her collaborators hit the essential high points; the result is a thoroughly engaging and deeply poignant drama. And if you’re not moved by the final scene, you’re truly made of stone.

On a sidebar note, it also marks a solid star turn by Kate Mara, who has spent the last decade impressing TV viewers with memorable supporting roles in 24, American Horror Story and House of Cards. She hasn’t been as lucky with big-screen work — and probably wishes that 2015’s Fantastic Four hadn’t happened — but this new film should enhance her profile, and deservedly so.

Her Megan Leavey is introduced here in 2003, as an aimless, desperately unhappy 20-year-old New Yorker taking up space in her bedroom. Her mother, Jackie (Edie Falco), has become disgusted by this daughter who, we can assume, probably has been a nightmare child for many years. Then again, Jackie is no prize; Falco makes her such a believably horrid shrike that Leavey’s actual mother might have grounds for character assassination.

At low ebb and with no other plans, Megan impulsively joins the Marines, surviving boot camp and subsequently attending military police school at San Diego’s Camp Pendleton. But her “wild child” tendencies haven’t quite been eradicated; an ill-advised night of misbehavior results in a week of scut detail in the camp’s kennel unit ... and the promise of a dishonorable discharge, if she screws up one more time.

Not to worry. Megan is immediately fascinated by the K9 unit, and particularly by a massive, apparently unruly German shepherd named Rex. Gaining permission to have anything to do with this dog, however, means buckling down in all sorts of ways, before the K9 unit’s gruff Sgt. Gunny Martin (Common) will give her even a second glance.

During the sort of “toughen up” montage that Rocky made famous, Cowperthwaite economically depicts Megan’s transformation in spirit (if not body; Mara never quite matches the actual Leavey’s more commanding physique). It’s an engaging sequence, Megan tolerating good-natured gibes from the other handlers, particularly during an apprenticeship period with her “pseudo-dog.”

She eventually gets her chance with Rex, and — no surprise — the two bond. The first moment of mutual trust, over a meal delivery, is pure magic.

In due time, Megan and Rex are deployed to Iraq, where she becomes one of the first female handlers to operate in an active combat zone. Her understandable terror is alleviated by fellow handler Matt Morales (Ramón Rodríguez), who has a similarly unbreakable bond with his dog, Chico.

And this, at the risk of inserting spoilers, is where I must stop. This film’s second act gets its nail-biting tension from suspense and uncertainty, and the story’s blunt depiction of a job that requires incalculable degrees of bravery and calm. If Cowperthwaite doesn’t quite achieve the levels of chest-clutching anxiety that characterized lengthy stretches of The Hurt Locker and the 1979 British TV series Danger UXB, it’s by modulated design; an entirely different level of stress awaits us, in the third act.

Mara easily holds our attention throughout, with a role that navigates one of cinema’s most satisfying character arcs: that of blossoming into an actual human being. Mara’s performance is unfussy, absent the method-acting tics and twitches that often distract from a character’s primary conflict; we simply watch Megan mature, and that’s sufficient.

Which isn’t to say that the role is undemanding. Mara delivers a credible emotional range, given the varied challenges that Megan confronts and conquers.

Common contributes a solid performance as Gunny, and doesn’t make the sergeant a one-note martinet; his behavior is quite reasonable, for a man responsible for the training and deployment of so many handlers and dogs. He wants to be sure, and — at first blush — Leavey gives him plenty of reason for doubt.

The same cannot be said for Geraldine James, whose flat-out nasty behavior as the K9 unit staff veterinarian is inexplicable. She’s the sort of one-note, exaggerated adversary that this otherwise reasonably balanced story doesn’t need.

Rodríguez’s Morales is the epitome of honor, toughness and compassion: the in-country buddy we’d all love to have at our side. Bradley Whitford is equally memorable in his understated role as Megan’s father; he gets the story’s most important speech, and Whitford delivers it superbly.

Most of Rex’s scenes are handled by a dog named Varco, who — let it be said — comes close to stealing the film. It’s not merely his soulful eyes; he has a way of cocking his head, of standing at attention, that makes us believe that he not only understands every single word, but can read minds. In other words, he’s simply a perfect dog.

The film’s compression of time is felt most in the second act, which — of narrative necessity — minimizes the impressive work actually done by Leavey and Rex. We get little sense of the fact that they completed more than 100 missions during two six-month tours in Fallujah and Ramadi. (The film also completely overlooks the fact that Rex had been teamed with Sgt. Mike Dowling in 2004, prior to being assigned to Leavey: details depicted in Dowling’s 2012 book, Sergeant Rex.)

Clearly, the “book of Rex” has many chapters; this film covers the latter half of this dog’s amazing life, and the equally inspiring bond that made such a difference in Leavey’s life. Megan Leavey is her story, and it’s a saga told with sincerity, respect and dramatic heft. It’s a modest little film that succeeds in its goals.

And yes, Cowperthwaite satisfies our desire, prior to the end credits, to see some footage of the actual Leavey and Rex.

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