On paper, Megan Leavey should have found no trouble in winning me over. As a movie about military working dogs, it checks a lot of boxes on my list of biases — I worked as a dog trainer for years, my brothers both served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m a sucker for Kate Mara. So I was understandably disappointed when the film fell short of my expectations through entirely avoidable shortcomings. It’s by no means a bad film, but for all the things it gets right, Megan Leavey makes a critical misstep at the script level and never really recovers.
Having taken the trailers as a reasonable basis for my assumptions, I thought that Leavey would be a film about a veteran fighting an intractable bureaucracy for the right to adopt the dog that saved her life (as well as countless others) in Iraq. And it is that film — for the last 20 minutes. The preceding hour-and-a-half is a poorly drawn character sketch so assured of its infallibility that it neglects its responsibility to actually build a character rather than simply assemble a collection of nebulously depicted traits. But beyond its dearth of character development, Leavey‘s cardinal sin is a complete and utter lack of conflict.
Conflict is the prime driver of dramatic tension, and a protagonist is often only as good as his or her antagonist. While the true story at the core of Megan Leavey is certainly compelling, the film fails to capture its eponymous heroine’s struggle against a broken system. The majority of the film’s running time is devoted to Leavey’s Marine Corps training and first deployment to Iraq, but there’s never any established opposition impeding her progress. By the time she finally engages in her quest to adopt Rex, the heroic explosive-sniffing German shepherd with which she served, what should have been the primary dramatic arc of the film feels more like a perfunctory afterthought.
Mara does her best to impart dimensionality to the character, but the script gives her little to work with. We see Leavey’s strained relationship with her mother (an underutilized Edie Falco), and her affinity for the New York Yankees, but conspicuously absent is any indication of her internal landscape. We know she’s a screw-up because other characters tell us that she is, as does an awkwardly abandoned first-person voice-over narration, but we never really see any evidence to that effect. Despite director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s ill-conceived stylistic tics, the blame for Leavey’s failure to live up to its potential must be laid at the feet of underexperienced screenwriters Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt, whose script would’ve been savaged by a third-year film school screenwriting seminar for its obvious narrative deficiencies.
Making a shaky transition into narrative filmmaking following her critically acclaimed and highly influential documentary Blackfish, one is left to wonder if Cowperthwaite wouldn’t have better served her subject with her prodigious skills as a documentarian. As it stands, Megan Leavey is merely a competent film when it should have been a great one. It’s certainly not the worst film on military working dogs (looking at you, Max), and my tween nieces will no doubt love it, but a true story with this much inherent heart and potential pathos deserved better. Rated PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Epic of Hendersonville.