Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Stars: Kate Mara, Common
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Megan Leavey” is a feel-good, inspirational weepie for snobs. Anything that might offend those allergic to the corny, the simplistic, even the patriotic has been surgically removed; it plays like the cinematic equivalent of a made-to-order sandwich from one of those gas stations that also serves fresh food. Ron Howard would have had a field day with it: It’s based on a true story. It has a loner seeking redemption. It has a cute dog. Instead it’s been calmly helmed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, of the righteous but cool-headed activist doc “Blackfish.” And it stars Kate Mara, an actress who loves playing characters who don’t like to be liked.
Mara plays Megan, a go-nowhere upstate New Yorker with a bad attitude who can’t hold a job. She whimsically signs up for the marines, but basic training doesn’t chill her out either — until she meets Rex, a German Shepherd trained to sniff for guns and IEDs. What started out as shit detail for drunkenly urinating in an army base garden blossoms into amour fou. She becomes his handler, heading over to Iraq so the two can save lives. When her tour is over, she’s appalled to learn combat dogs aren’t reintegrated back into society. Usually they’re put to sleep, because dogs get PTSD, too.
Megan’s campaign to adopt Rex is the one thing “Leavey” handles clumsily. One minute, a drill sergeant played by a very good Common is choking back tears as he informs Megan of the times former marine dogs have killed little kids. The next, Megan is angrily soldering on anyway, insisting, without proof, that Rex wouldn’t do that. (It feels like a key scene was erased by accident.) Usually, it’s capital-S subtle — a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t want to be one. Its closest cousin is last year’s “Loving,” the civil rights docudrama that skipped the usual Oscar bait scenes, including the one where our heroes triumph in the courtroom.
“Megan Leavey” isn’t nearly as sure-handed as “Loving,” and it lacks anything like director Jeff Nichols’ rugged poetry. Sometimes Cowperthwaite cranks up a score that’s probably labeled “generic Middle Eastern music.” But it has an air of professionalism reminiscent of a good soldier. Despite scoring a poster with an American flag draped over the background, it’s very careful to be neither nationalistic nor anti-patriotic. You can tell Cowperthwaite is a documentarian: Even a scene where soldiers testily push around an Iraqi civilian, only to find he’s storing guns in his walls, boasts an even-handed, you-are-there objectivity, allowing you to identify with the bullied Iraqi local first, then with the soldiers he may have put in harm’s way.
Mara follows suit; even when Megan is finding happiness in her new life, she remains prickly, temperamental, cold, uninterested in being your rah-rah hero. Ultimately, this is a film that’s more interesting for what it isn’t than what it is, but it builds up enough good will that you can forgive it the occasional trespass — including casting an actor to play Senator Chuck Schumer who really, really doesn’t look like Chuck Schumer.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge