Megan Leavey is a war picture, but the scenes of combat, while suitably tense, are not its selling point. Instead, the film, based on a true story, follows aimless young Leavey (Kate Mara), who in 2003 leaves home to become a Marine. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite condenses the scenes of boot camp, with its aggression and repetition, and soon places us in the story's key location: a military K9 division. There Leavey, initially sent to clean up dog poop as a punishment, develops a bond with Rex, an aggressive but soulful German shepherd. While the film follows a predictable arc -- Leavey goes from misfit to hero as she and Rex are deployed in Iraq -- it is anchored in a poignancy frequently missing in this explosion-filled, hyper-macho genre.
Mara is possessed of a pleasingly pert quality, with big eyes and a sly grin. When she looks at Rex (who, it must be said, is a terrific actor for a nonhuman), there's a feeling of real connection -- they maintain eye contact and she sweetly calls him a good boy. Scenes in which she tends to him are a welcome respite from combat, but they also serve to make their time on the battlefield all the more intense: Dog deaths in cinema are far too common, a route for filmmakers to elicit easy tears, and the battlefield increases the risk tenfold. The drama at home, on the other hand, though based on true events, feels forced. Still, Megan Leavey is ultimately a rarity in Hollywood: a true story of a woman in combat, directed by a woman.