6.5 out of 10
Kate Mara as Corporal Megan Leavey
Edie Falco as Jackie Leavey
Common as Gunnery Sergeant Massey
Ramón Rodríguez as Corporal Matt Morales
Tom Felton as Andrew Dean
Damson Idris as Michael Forman
Shannon Tarbet as Barb
Bradley Whitford as Bob
Alex Hafner as ECP Sgt Sanders
Will Patton as Jim
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Megan Leavey (Mara) was a typical millennial, floating from one moment to the next while trying to figure exactly what the big goal of her life would be. An impromptu decision to join the Marines after a personal tragedy introduces that goal to her in the form of a four-legged bomb sniffer named Rex. Finding something larger than herself and her own resentments to focus on, Megan dives headfirst into the role of professional soldier and dog handler and discovers the dangers of both when she enters combat in Iraq during the mid-2000s. Wounded, re-examining and cut off from Rex, Megan must call up the inner strength she has discovered again to overcome the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the US military and bring her faithful partner home.
War movies are tough to do. There are too many different ways to approach and each requires careful balancing. They can be platforms for adventure stories, for comedy, they can be played for rah rah patriotism or they can focus on the horror of armed conflict either for emotional effect or an anti-war stance. There are a lot of options is what I’m saying, but one thing all of them require is total commitment to their given tone. Once you’re committed to the comedy version, it’s a bad idea to suddenly swerve to the horrors of war. Tone is the delineator for how a war film will come off and the boundaries are only so elastic for even the most talented creator.
By the same conceit, sentimental dramas are also very tough to do, for almost the opposite reason. They have one tone, set in stone, which cannot be changed. Even the mildest misstep can send them spiraling off into either melodrama oblivion or sappy soapbox, neither of which are traditionally fun to watch. Megan Leavey wants to be a sentimental war drama, which is a minefield such that even the plucky Rex would have pause before attempting to navigate it. It’s to director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s credit that it never swerves into the realm of self-parody or sentimentalism. But it is also so focused on specific responses that it’s hard to ignore the emotional manipulation involved. Worse, and the largest misstep by far, it wants to treat war with the seriousness it deserves while sparing the audience of anything that might be disconcerting. The impulse is understandable, but it doesn’t do the material any favors. Leavey’s tour of duty in Iraq, which takes up so much of the second act, never fully conveys the impact of combat which causes her to rethink her Marine career. The camera is more focused on Mara playing with Rex or flirting with one of the other handlers (Rodriguez).
That said, Mara gives Leavey her best stuff, attempting to bring out both Megan’s best and worst instincts. The bottom is not played as strongly as the top – this is supposed to be an uplifting drama, not a descent into the perils of substance abuse – but that is not Mara’s fault. What she’s given to do, she commits to. She’s helpfully surrounded by a bevy of strong character actors like Bradford and Falco who know how to take one-note characters (and they are very one note) and make them seem like Braham’s concerto. Common also elevates the military scenes, managing the tricky act of both tough sergeant and reasonable friend and confidant which could fill the screen with saccharine but doesn’t. Tom Felton (Harry Potter), on the other hand, is unfortunately miscast in a key role as an experienced Iraq veteran who never feels like he’s actually been to war.
The end result is not bad, but like a lot of inspirational dramas, it is so intent on tugging at the heart strings it not only doesn’t notice when it is tugging too hard, it doesn’t notice when it is ignoring other things. It’s possible there’s no better way to do this, or the audience for this kind of film won’t care. But it’s also possible Mary Poppins was wrong and the spoonful of sugar by itself isn’t enough; it needs to be blended with some other ingredients to keep us from gagging.