- Actors: Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Will Patton
- Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
- Writers: Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, Tim Lovestedt
- Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Jennifer Monroe
- Format: NTSC, Subtitled
- Language: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)
- Subtitles: Spanish, English
- Region: Region A/1
- Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
- Rated: PG-13
- Studio: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
- Release Date: September 5, 2017
- Digital Copy Expiration Date: May 2, 2018
For the first half of Megan Leavey, I was somewhat critical of the film’s title, especially considering the catalyst and main focus of the narrative seemed to be the dog rather than the soldier. But the narrative changes from a war film to a movie about a marine’s advocacy for her canine partner in the second half, becoming clear where the spirit of the film truly lies. While it certainly is a film about two misunderstood outcasts finding purpose for their lives, it is Leavey’s heartfelt determination that remains central to the story’s success.
The attempt to tell a story that switches gears from a familiar war-time narrative to a personal social action movement midway is not always smooth or natural, but many of the film’s awkward transitions and uncertain meandering can be forgiven by the filmmaker’s dedication to remain loyal to the true story it is based on. Although there are elements of several genre films in the narrative, audiences would be better off without the expectations of these rigid formulas. For the most part, even those expecting the contrivances of a genre structure will be won over when the story subverts expectations by suddenly switching gears, and that is completely due to the strength of spirit in the title character and the actress who plays her.
Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is introduced as a citizen without a purpose for her life, which may at first appear to be an easy way to cram in advocacy for the benefits of military service. But even as Leavey becomes a soldier, she remains something of an outsider, allowing the film to make it clear that serving her country is not what gives her purpose and sense of belonging, at least not as much as the military combat dog she is paired with. Rex is seen as an aggressive dog, misunderstood by everyone, including Leavey at first, until they build a bond. This bond allows them to complete over 100 missions seeking out IED bombs in Iraq, until Leavey’s decision to retire from service after an injury threatens to separate them for good.
Leavey has other relationships throughout the film, including the strict mentorship of a superior (Common), a tumultuous connection with her separated and mostly unsupportive mother (Edie Falco) and father (Bradley Whitford), and a brief romantic entanglement with fellow marine Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez). But none of these ever come close to removing focus from the true heart of the narrative, which is the connection between Leavey and Rex. Mara carries the film in a way that feels effortless and sincere, though this is even more of a testament to her hard work and dedication as an actor. This is especially clear when the human actor is forced to pick up the slack for the canine performer, who hits all of his marks but doesn’t always convey the emotions needed to sell the relationship. Part of the problem is the abundance of amateur footage of pets we are bombarded with online these days, allowing audiences to spot the contrivance of a well trained dog that is missing the exuberance of a real pet when greeting a loved owner. Megan Leavey has two reunion scenes between marine and dog, and they are fantastically effective in the long shot, but rely entirely upon Mara in the close up.
On a side note, I think it is important to mention that Megan Leavey was all but dismissed at the box office when it was first released (though it was recently re-released, suggesting posturing for award season), overshadowed by Wonder Woman, which was cleverly marketed as the ultimate feminist film experience. Not to dismiss the significance of the comic book movie (which is primarily how much money it made), but this is a film based on a real-life female hero. Not only that, but it was also directed by a female filmmaker (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who previously proved capable of advocating for animals with her award-winning documentary, Blackfish), and boasts a writing team that was also 2/3 female (while Wonder Woman was written entirely by men). Wonder Woman may have been the flashy feminist film of the summer, but Megan Leavey was the sleeper hit, and a film that advocates of more equality in the film industry should have been paying more attention to.
The Blu-ray release of Megan Leavey also comes with a DVD and Digital HD copy of the film, although the special features on the actual disc leave a lot to be desired. There is only a single promotional featurette, and it is less than three minutes long. The main focus of the brief featurette is to look at the title character and basic premise of the film, hardly spending enough time to give more information than the film’s trailer would.
Entertainment Value: 7.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7.5/10
Historical Significance: 7/10
Special Features: 2/10