When I was contacted about watching and reviewing an early screening of “Megan Leavey,” the upcoming dramatic biopic starring Kate Mara that tells the story of a Marine K9 handler and her experiences with a German Shepard named “Rex,” I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.  There hasn’t been a particular shortage of contemporary war movies depicting the struggle of veterans of my generation, but there has been a distinct lack of female voices in many of those films.  Because of that, I went into watching “Megan Leavey” with some certain expectations: like that the film would make some heavy-handed statements about gender or politics.

I want to be clear that making an overt statement about gender in a movie like “Megan Leavey” wouldn’t inherently make it bad.  Lots of the best war movies of all time were little more than platforms for a political agenda when they were released, and you’d be hard pressed to find a demographic worthier of a bit of propaganda.  I’ve witnessed female Marines and veterans go overlooked in conversations and even celebrations, because your average American just doesn’t picture a lady in that desert-digi uniform.  I’ve been thanked for my service while sitting next to ignored women with more illustrious military careers than my own often enough to know that our culture tends to overlook the sacrifices made by the women that volunteer to don the uniforms of the United States military.  As far as I’m concerned, if a movie wanted to ham-fist that idea at the audience, it could be argued that it’s been a long time coming.

But “Megan Leavey” did no such grand standing, while still imparting the same important lessons.  That’s why, for my money, despite some shortcomings, this movie is a triumph in terms of representing women in uniform.

“Megan Leavey” opens with a story a lot of service members can likely relate to: a poisonous home life, a tragedy that puts things into perspective, and the decision to use the service as means to escape the course we seem to be on.  That trend permeates throughout the movie, offering us glimpses into Leavey’s experiences in training, deployed, and ultimately back at home, all the while keeping our main character relatable.  Her challenges, struggles, and triumphs were not gender specific, they were Marine Corps specific, making Leavey a suitable stand-in for each of us that once set foot on the yellow footprints of Parris Island or MCRD San Diego.

And therein lies the real strength of “Megan Leavey”: despite acknowledging her gender, and certainly some of the issues that women in uniform are faced with, it never stops to dwell on the sexist Staff Sergeant or the unspoken bias some Marines clearly had toward a woman participating in combat missions with Marine infantrymen.  Instead, Leavey addresses each in real-time and with a strength and composure that denotes a professional war fighter.  When faced with gender bias, Leavey works her ass off to prove her doubters wrong.  When faced with sexist remarks, Leavey walks away undaunted and is able to commiserate with her fellow Marines about that out-of-touch leader.

Indeed, gender permeates the undertones of the film, but rarely bubbles up into serving as the primary obstacle our Marine faces.  Like so many female Marines before her, Leavey doesn’t prove her doubters wrong by saying she can do it, she proves them wrong by doing it. “Megan Leavey” isn’t a story about gender because Leavey herself doesn’t let it be – maintaining an aura throughout that seems to say, “if you don’t think I can do it, that’s your problem, not mine;” and it genuinely works.

No one pats Leavey on the back for being a woman and a hero, they celebrate that she’s a Marine and hero – which is an incredibly important distinction to make in today’s world.  By not making Leavey’s story about gender, this film says loads about women in the service: namely that they are capable of anything they set their sights on accomplishing.

With that said, “Megan Leavey” isn’t the war movie I expected it to be either.  While there is certainly some action to speak of, and the film doesn’t do a bad job of depicting the way Marines interact with one another, it’s ultimately a love story above all else: not between Leavey and a male lead, mind you, but between Leavey and her incredible working dog, Rex.

Kate Mara does an excellent job of depicting a realistic Marine in her circumstances; which felt almost out of the ordinary in film.  Her depiction of the post-traumatic stress she suffered after being injured in combat did, at times, feel a bit over the top, but it included a type of realism rarely shown in movies about “war heroes:” it showed what a pain in the ass a person suffering from PTSD can be to the people who love them.

All too often, we depict returning veterans who are suffering from PTSD as proud warriors that are quietly haunted by their experiences, which can really serve to romanticize the condition.  In movies, we see a man drinking by himself and struggling to cope the same way Batman broods: it looks like an awful way to live, but has a certain nobility to it.  Unfortunately, the reality for those living with anxiety and depression is rarely so proud – with even the most caring of family members sometimes losing their patience with their loved one that can’t seem to get back to normal.  In a lot of ways, struggling with mental health makes you seem like, and feel like, the bad guy as your personal relationships begin to falter, and “Megan Leavey” does a good job of demonstrating a sense of that feeling.

Leavey sometimes comes off as downright rude and disconnected from her family, who also come off at times as uncaring or crass.  While most movies would use that as a plot device to show why Leavey can’t connect with them, this movie, more realistically, allows them to butt heads and remain together.  There’s no magical revelation that heals the rifts in her relationships with her parents, there’s just a handful of people trying their best to get by under difficult circumstances.  A person’s fight with PTSD doesn’t end with a meaningful conversation… it may persist forever, and “Megan Leavey” clearly tried to demonstrate that.

Most of the gripes I felt over this movie came early on, and almost all were the result of missing the mark in terms of Marine Corps culture.  Some actors wear their covers incorrectly (like a baseball cap), Marines are often introduced using their first and last names, something I hardly ever encountered in my time in, and at one point it seemed a bit like Leavey was going to the range to rifle-qual every week – but all of these complaints are minor at best, and would almost certainly go unnoticed to folks that haven’t laced up their boots in a while.  A number of other elements of Marine Corps life, however, were as spot on as I’ve ever seen in film.

The ass-chewings Leavey receives in uniform are perhaps my favorite parts of the movie, and again speaks to the way gender is depicted by the movie’s director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite.  No one takes it easy on Leavey because she’s a female, nor do they act like anyone should.  Instead, her Master Sergeant tears her apart with all the anger I remember so fondly from my own youthful ass-chewings.  It seems almost brutal on-screen, but then, they always seemed pretty brutal in person too, and Leavey responds with the same strength and professionalism one would expect of a Marine in real life, if not always in movies.

While Kate Mara does do a great job of playing the role of a strong, female Marine, the real surprise to me came in the form of Common in the role of GySgt Martin and Tom Felton as Sergeant Andrew Dean.  Common provides what may be the most realistic portrayal of a staff non-commissioned officer in charge of young Marines I’ve seen in some time, and Felton – whom I’ve only ever seen as Draco Malfoy before – gives a surprising performance as a military police sergeant that can be equal parts tough and empathetic while working to train Mara’s Leavey.

Ultimately, “Megan Leavey” isn’t a ground breaking political film, a war-story for modern veterans, or a feminist exploration of military service: it’s a story about a Marine who, when thrown into incredible circumstances, demonstrates the very kind of bravery and professionalism we want to expect of a member of the world’s most elite fighting branch.  Mara does the Marine Corps justice in her depiction of the strength required to be a woman fighting for Old Glory, but her more important contribution is in her depiction of a person left struggling with the repercussions of that heroism.

The story of Leavey and her dog Rex is heartwarming, stressful, and might draw a tear or two from time to time, and though it misses the mark on some small details, it does a pretty good job of capturing Marine Corps life as I knew it.  Kate Mara depicts Leavey as imperfect and at times not entirely put together, which is a refreshing view of a movie’s protagonist, and her supporting cast provide believable and at times downright impressive performances.

And of course, the working dogs do a damn good job too.

“Megan Leavey” hits theaters on June 9th – check out the trailer below!


Images courtesy of Bleecker Street