Knowing all the sacrifices, the physical demands, the potential dangers, plus the strict adherence to following commands, why would someone want to join the Marines? Perhaps it’s a need for order in a world full of chaos; maybe it offers a future when civilian life offers none; or maybe it’s a genuine desire to do some time, honorably serving and protecting the country against those who would want to forcibly change our western way of life.
For Megan Leavy (Kate Mara), according to the new, biographical drama of the same name, it was a combination of things; an unsettled home life, separated parents, getting fired from a succession of dead-end jobs, and perhaps worst of all, waking up after a heavy night of pills and partying when you best friend doesn’t. “It’s just you don’t connect to people very well,” an employer tells her following yet another firing.
It’s 2001. While waiting for the bus that will take her from small town New York to Parris Island Marine Corp Base, from civilian life to the military, Megan reflects on all of those things. She has no clue what’s ahead of her – at this point she appears to have little perspective on anything in life; she hasn’t even told her mother what she’s doing – but she’ll survive the hell of Boot Camp, start as Private First Class, leave as Corporal, do her duty as a Military Police K9 handler, bond with her combat dog Rex, experience two deployments in Iraq, receive a Purple Heart, and complete over a 100 missions that, together with Rex, will save countless lives. It’s when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) sends both Marine and dog hurtling through the air that their time together comes to a halt, but that’s only half the story.
Megan Leavey might not quite be the film you were expecting. Film clips and trailers suggest a military combat movie with a marine and her dog at the center, which the first half certainly is, but the second half is back on home turf, and it’s there where the psychological trauma of healing begins, including the desperate need to reunite with the one thing that meant everything to the Marine: her dog, the one she wants to adopt, the one that the military have deemed unadoptable.
Kate Mara appears short and slight of weight. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking she would never survive the first few minutes of Boot Camp. But as the film progresses and Mara dons those boots and camouflage fatigues, she soon conveys an acceptable sense of movie realism behind the performance, and it’s not long before you fully believe her as the PFC who becomes a Corporal with the Purple Heart.
Rapper and poet, Common (real name Lonnie Lynn Jr.) is not a particularly great actor, but he’s good as hard-nosed Gunnery Sergeant Massey. There’s a likable presence, and given the right role, as he has here, he can be surprisingly effective.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is English actor Tom Felton in the small though important supporting role as a veteran Marine dog handler. More popularly known as young Draco Malfoy with bleached white hair in the Harry Potter movies, and more recently as an English snot in the period drama A United Kingdom, Felton convinces as American Marine Andrew Dean without a trace of Brit in his voice.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, previously known as a documentary filmmaker for her work on 2013’s Blackfish, does a fine job resisting the urge to overstep the deployment scenes by holding back on the shooting, the destruction, and the spilling of blood. Considering the second half is more a home-base drama, too much aggression on the war front and the film would have felt unbalanced. Here, the tone between halves is just right.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of all to Megan Leavey is discovering the differences between the real-life story and how it’s told as entertainment. Real life has an irritating habit of not agreeing with a good yarn; it can often ruin the rhythm of a tale that needs to be told in a certain way in order to work at the movies. In Megan Leavey’s case, comparing reality to invention becomes a study for film students on how a film that states that it’s based on a true story needs to be done.
In real-life, Megan joined the Marines in 2003, not 2001 as the opening titles suggest. Why the difference? In story-telling terms, maybe it’s because 2001 is a more important year for the military. Post 9/11 saw a spike in recruits; Americans signed up with a fervor more patriotic than usual. As a result, 2001 has a more dramatic heft to the numbers than 2003.
In reality, Megan informed her parents of her joining long before leaving. They were not happy. Dad even tried to talk her out of it. Plus, it’s part of the recruitment process that parents discuss the oncoming tour with a recruitment officer before service begins. It’s to stress the importance of positive reinforcement to their son or daughter in advance of the hell known as Marine Boot Camp. But that’s not how it’s shown in the film.
The film shows Megan’s mother (Edie Falco) discovering a Marine recruitment pamphlet in the back of her daughter’s bedroom drawer, then immediately calling her adult daughter on her cell asking what does it mean, right at the time when Megan is arriving on base, seconds from Boot Camp, and just as a Drill Instructor is yelling through the window, “Hang up that phone!”
New recruits usually arrive for Boot Camp in the early hours of the morning, around 3 am or so. It’s by design; it disorients the newbie as instructors scream “You’re an embarrassment!” from within an inch of the recruit’s face even before the recruit has done anything wrong. If that’s the case, that would mean that for some reason mom was up at 3 am going through her daughter’s bedroom, then making a call expecting to get an answer in the middle of the night. Events are unlikely to unfold like that. But that’s how it happens in the film, and for story-telling purposes filled with audience-grabbing conflict, drama, and tension, the script skillfully weaves all of those elements into less than a minute of screen time, all within one page of dialog.
Also, that Purple Heart was stolen from the barracks at Camp Pendleton, never found. Plus, much is made in the film of the emptiness of Megan’s homelife without Rex at home. In the film, Megan’s mom tries to help by buying her daughter a puppy, but Megan is having none of it; no dog but Rex could ever fill the void in her life. In reality, Megan actually had four animals (two cats, two dogs) in the house while trying to locate her military K9. As a documentary filmmaker, Cowperthwaite would have used all of those details, including the name of the senator who aided Megan in her search for Rex (Democrat New York Senator, Chuck Schumacher) but when the need to narrow a focus for something designed as principally entertainment, the director and the four writers credited for the screenplay have made the right editorial decisions. As it stands, Megan Leavey’ s adapted, more streamlined screen story works, and the film should have a much broader appeal as a result.
Animal lovers, particularly dog lovers, will understand the connection and will root for the corporal to give her dog a loving home after its military retirement, but it might take a Marine to fully understand the bond and Megan’s unstoppable drive.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 116 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)