‘Megan Leavey’ Is a Movie About Combat and Depression You Can Watch With Your Family
On dogs and Marines
This article contains light spoilers for Megan Leavey
I decided Megan Leavy was good when Leavey’s mom confronts her after boot camp and asks an indelicate question about death benefits. Edie Falco plays the supremely scummy and negligent Jackie Leavey with the kind of detached parenting you only ever see in real life and never on screen.
Especially not in a movie about an American combat veteran.
“You wanna know how much you make if I kick?” Megan asks, disgusted by her mother’s morbid need for cash. Mom and her boyfriend were late for the graduation ceremony too. Not great people, the Leavey parents.
“I left this place a thousand times in my mind, but I never actually went anywhere,” Leavey says at the top of the film. She’s in upstate New York and she’s unhappy with her life. More than that, she’s depressed. With parents like Jackie, who can blame her?
“I wanted to get the fuck away from my life,” Megan says. So she joined the Marines. “You don’t leave because you have somewhere to go, you leave because there’s nothing keeping you there.”
It was enough to make me pay closer attention. Typically, Hollywood films focus on soldiers as true-believers. People want movies about the Chris Kyles of the world — men and women with a fervent belief in America’s greatness.
In my experience, just as many people join the military because they’re lost or have nowhere else to go. Megan Leavey is about that kind of Marine. It’s also about dogs.
A woman joins the Marines, get assigned to a K-9 unit, deploys and then comes home and fights to adopt her former fuzzy partner-in-arms. Megan Leavey is based on a true story and bills itself as the kind of thing you go see with your family and feel good about afterwards.
And, on the surface, that’s all true. But there’s more going on here. Megan is complicated. She has a hard time coming home from war. She’s depressed. It turns out that all the problems she ran from were waiting for her when she got back.
For director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Megan’s depression and struggle to come home was the central question of the film. “In some ways that third act — after all the bells and whistles and actions scenes are done — is the true testament of whether or not the film works,” she told me.
“Do you stay with her even when she’s back from Iraq and the set pieces are all done? I’m interested in trying to understand what it means to come back for any veteran. It’s a struggle in the civilian world to understand. I don’t know if we can ever understand what they went through.”
Those action set pieces are serviceable. Megan and her dog Rex are genuine war heroes who uncover weapons caches and save lives. But the real conflict in Megan Leavey is the struggle to come home.
“Watching her become whole as a result of becoming a Marine and finding a family and finding a partner in life, which is Rex, and then to be stripped of that when she comes home — I wanted audiences to feel that. I wanted you to imagine what it’s like to feel amputated. There’s a lot of ways to come back broken.”
Cowperthwaite, whose most famous film is the Sea World-destroying Black Fish — took an interest in the military after working on the History Channel series Shootout! That docu-series detailed the ongoing firefights in the early days of America’s wars in the Middle East.
It was during a training exercise before a deployment at the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, Florida that she got a small taste of what a U.S. soldier experiences every day. “Here I am with camera crews in Twentynine Palms watching them trains and it hits me in moment.”
Cowperthwaite was standing behind a Marine preparing to fire a rocket when another Marine grabbed her flak jacket and pulled her out of the backblast range. “I was pregnant with twins at the time,” she told me. “The idea that I could go home that night and all these guys were going to be leaving for Fallujah, the most dangerous place on the planet at that time … there was a shift that happened in me.”
The experience stuck with her and when she read the script for Megan Leavey, she knew she had a chance to tell the story of an elite Marine — and, even better, an elite woman Marine.
She’s succeeded. Megan Leavey avoids many of the tropes that make other war flicks seem hokey and awful. Megan is a fuck-up. She gets so drunk one night that she pisses on the floor in the provost’s office. The incident earns her detail cleaning out the kennels, where she meets Rex and decides to buckle down.
Another strong aspect of the movie is how it handles both romance and the concept of a woman in combat. It largely ignores both. Megan beds down with a fellow Marine, but it’s not the focus of the film and it’s not a romance meant for the ages, but a side plot where both characters are obviously distracting each other from the incessant cycle of stress and release that comes from clearing houses in Iraq.
Megan is a strong and capable Marine who earns her position in the K-9 unit through hard work and diligence. There’s no grand speech about what it means to be a woman in the military and no one questions her ability to do the job. It’s refreshing to see a movie with a female soldier at its center that’s not about a female soldier being at its center.