Megan Leavey. 2017. Bleecker Street Media. Directed by Gabriella Cowperthwaite. USA
Megan Leavey is based on the true story of a young woman who finds purpose in life through her bond with Rex, a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd and fellow United States Marine. Movies about healing through a connection with a nonhuman animal being, especially dogs (McLean 2014), have a rich history, including the relatively recent Free Willy (1993), Year of the Dog (2006), and A Dolphin Tale (2011). Many such healings repair broken families or encourage makeshift families to form and Megan Leavey nods in this direction when family members attend a ceremony honoring Megan and Rex at Yankee Stadium. Director Gabriella Cowperthwaite established a reputation for animal advocacy with the documentary Blackfish (2013), which is about how corporate indifference to individuals makes the threat of death omnipresent. Megan explores similar territory, except that the Marine Corps acknowledges and mitigates the obvious dangers of their work. Another precedent would seem to be the other German Shepherd actors, such as Rin Tin Tin, whose A Dog of the Regiment (1927) features a military setting. Rin Tin Tin, however, dazzled audiences with amazing stunts while Megan Leavey is about ordinary soldiers, both human and canine, who perform extraordinary acts of bravery in the course of duty.
Megan is a working-class woman in New Jersey, antagonized by an overbearing mother and a step-father who drains family resources. Lost and without purpose, Megan enlists in the Marines, where she is disciplined by being assigned to clean up after the K9 bomb-sniffing unit. When she meets Rex, he is aggressive and threatening, but Megan persists, ultimately winning his trust. After Gunnery Sergeant Martin describes the challenges of qualifying to serve in his unit, a training sequence shows Megan rising to the task. When Rex bites his handler, Martin assigns Megan to step in. Soon afterward, they deploy to Iraq, where Megan and Rex find themselves targeted because they protect troops from IEDs and other dangers. Some of these scenes are harrowing and suggest how both humans and canines experience war, but exploring subjective moments or the physicality of experiences, as does Three Kings (Russell 1999), might have deepened audience engagement.
The opening scenes establish Megan as having trouble bonding with others and later in the film a Marine trainer emphasizes that, “I can train the heck out of you, but I can’t teach you to bond.” Unfortunately, for this very promising kernel of a story, the relationship between Megan and Rex clicks unevenly, and Rex remains something of a cipher, only intermittently intent on Megan. Rex thrives as a character when he seeks explosives or attends to the task at hand, but many scenes emphasize his aggressive nature, and this does little to encourage the audience to connect to him. In addition, the film’s thorough engagement with Megan means that it never shows Rex when he is away from her, thus neglecting to explore the multiple sides of their bond. Does he need her like she needs him? How does being with Megan change Rex for the better? Ideally, human would enrich canine and canine would enrich human, but a lack of personal chemistry between the actors means that the bond between Megan and Rex remains one of duty rather than of love. The dominant meaning is thus fidelity, underscored by the Marine slogan “Semper Fidelis,” unfortunately with duty eclipsing love of the Marines and of country that the slogan implies. This feels like a denial of full personhood rather than an enabling of it, and diminishes a film that proposes to be about how characters broken by their experiences find mutual healing, acceptance, and respect.
A final conflict in the film involves Megan’s prolonged struggle to adopt Rex, whom a Marine veterinarian marks “UNADOPTABLE.” When Megan begs Martin to change his file, he makes clear the parallels between human and canine soldiers: “They aren’t pets. They aren’t even dogs anymore. They’re warriors. They come back with all the same issues we do.” The key difference of course is that human soldiers consent to becoming warriors and Rex is sent back to Iraq with a new handler despite Megan’s protests. She continues to pursue custody of Rex, however, meeting with lawmakers, writing petitions and making media appearances. At the retirement ceremony for Rex, Megan is elated to learn that she finally gets to take him home. The film closes with Megan and Rex receiving a hero’s welcome from a cheering crowd at Yankee Stadium. A title card tells us that they went on to be a security team here and at other locations.
Even as it promises to raise awareness of the practice of using canines to wage war, Megan Leavey largely avoids raising questions about the ethics of doing so. The film shows that Rex enabled Megan to pursue her potential as a soldier and as a human being, but did she do the same for him? It seems a marginal reciprocation that she saves him from euthanasia when she adopts him upon his retirement and she does finally give him a chance to play and to be a “puppy.” On one hand, Megan Leavey declines to distort Rex with an anthropomorphic point of view, which marks a stark contrast with A Dog’s Purpose. On the other, however, the film does little to reveal Rex as more than a military service canine who existed to fulfill the human end of saving human lives. The audience would be in a better position to appreciate his sacrifice with some understanding of what military service cost him. Rex might have been loyal to Megan and to the Marines, but was he true to himself?
Cowperthwaite, G. (2013). Blackfish. Our Turn Pictures.
Hallström, L. (2017). A Dog’s Purpose. Amblin Entertainment.
Lederman, D.. R. (1927). A Dog of the Regiment. Warner Bros.
McLean, A. (2014). Cinematic canines: Dogs and their work in the fiction film. NY: Rutgers University Press.
Russell, D. (1999). Three Kings. Warner Bros.
Smith, C. M. (2011). A Dolphin Tale. Alcon Entertainment.
White, M. (2006). Year of the Dog. Paramount Classics.
Wincer, S. (1993). Free Willy. Warner Bros.