Comic books aren’t the only place Hollywood can find warrior women to make movies about. “Megan Leavey” is as real and heroic as it gets.
Her story could inspire a more rote movie than director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has in mind. Leavey was a social misfit who found a home in the U.S. Marines, earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, then resigned with depression and a purpose. She served as a K9 handler, forging a lifelong bond with her German shepherd partner Rex, also wounded and decorated.
For some, Leavey’s gender begs a feminist military statement. Certainly war’s emotional and physical damage have been dramatized ad nauseam. At any moment the dog might push Cowperthwaite toward sentimentality, something like “Megan and Me.”
Instead, “Megan Leavey” doesn’t overdo any of those angles, making points on each without much fanfare. The movie is unusually matter-of-fact about dramatic notes other filmmakers would milk. This is Cowperthwaite’s debut feature after her 2013 documentary “Blackfish” put SeaWorld on blast. She carries over that genre’s objectivity, tempering any urge to jerk tears.
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As Megan, Kate Mara delivers her strongest performance yet, literally with regard to the physical demands involved. Mara’s petite physique makes her an unlikely choice to play a Marine, but confounding expectation is part of Megan’s heroism. Early scenes of women in boot camp are striking after the Amazon training sequences in “Wonder Woman”; real versus fantasy fierceness.
Enlisting is Megan’s escape from an unbearable mother and stepdad (Edie Falco, Will Patton), who tossed aside her doting father (Bradley Whitford). She’s finding herself when a foolish act puts her military future in doubt. Her punishment includes cleaning K9 quarters and being an attack dummy, luckily as it turns out.
Megan eventually makes the K9 grade and is assigned to Rex, a temperamental sort like Megan. Wills are tested, breakthroughs made and soon they’re in Iraq, sniffing out IEDs and weapons caches. Cowperthwaite displays a keen grasp of tension while moving her appealing characters forward, especially Megan’s flirtation with a fellow Marine (Ramon Rodriguez).
A fateful mission leads to Megan and Rex separating, and the movie shifts into its third, less satisfying phase as a coming home drama, a more conventional path. An attempt to adopt Rex — if he survives later tours of duty — means motions filed, red tape to be cut. Cowperthwaite can’t stave off sameness long enough.
Still, “Megan Leavey” does the feel-good job everyone intends, an interesting story straightforwardly told. Cowperthwaite and Mara won’t get a fraction of “Wonder Woman’s” audience yet deserve as much respect.
Rated PG-13 for for war violence, language, suggestive material and thematic elements.