In an early scene from Megan Leavey, a master sergeant (Corey Johnson) in the Marines angrily tells the eponymous corporal played by Kate Mara that she’s not the first “entitled brat” to join the Marines just to escape his or her own personal troubles rather than out of a sincere desire to protect the United States. The insular, self-involved perspective implied by the man’s outburst applies to Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s docudrama, which invests in this one woman’s devotion to the bomb-sniffing canine she handles during a tour in Iraq in 2006 at the expense of the troubling real-world context surrounding them both: the many lives lost on both sides of a conflict that was waged on false pretext and whose ramifications are still being felt today.
Megan Leavey, though, has already waged a losing battle long before its protagonist arrives in Iraq. Right off the bat, Megan is flimsily depicted as a familiar byproduct of a broken family, living a dead-end life in a small upstate New York town. After losing the one friend who made her life there a little less boring, she makes good on her desire to get out of Dodge by joining the Marines. If there’s no depth to the difficulty that Megan has in connecting to others, it’s because the filmmakers wish for the audience to understand her antisocial demeanor as a given. Having one character simply tell Megan after she fires her from a job that she has trouble relating to others, instead of allowing us to discover this for ourselves by closely observing her behavior, is symptomatic of Megan Leavey’s superficial approach to characterization.
Even Megan’s bonding period with Rex, the dog that expectedly changes the young woman’s life, seems oddly truncated, with the pooch not so much becoming more obedient around his new handler than transforming from arm-biting terror to submissive best friend practically on a dime. But all of this takes a backseat to the self-absorption that Megan, and by extension the film itself, exudes throughout. Certainly she doesn’t seem to develop an awareness of the turmoil she and her fellow Americans bring to the Iraqis. Because the film sticks so closely to Megan’s perspective, we see the Iraqis, whose lives the U.S. military upended through their invasion of the country, as little more than Others, giving off the feeling that they’re merely supporting players in this one American woman’s emotional journey.
Cowperthwaite, though, could be said to simply be taking her parochial cues from the subject herself, who remained so devoted to Rex years after she decided to return to civilian life that she started a national campaign and enlisted the help of New York Senator Chuck Schumer just so she could intimidate the Marines into letting her adopt the animal after they decide to retire him from service in 2012. Based on what the film shows us, Megan never couches her campaign as any kind of broader political statement. It remains resolutely about her own desire to reunite with this one dog, with barely any acknowledgment of the sacrifices that the many other bomb-sniffing dogs and trainers still in active duty are making every day.