“They’re not even dogs anymore; they’re warriors. And they come back with all the same issues we do.”
Based on a true story, Megan Leavey is a story of warriors—a Marine and her dog. But it is more than a war story. It is the story of a struggle to find one’s place in the world and the way a bond with another could provide a sense of meaning and purpose.
Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is living an aimless life, but joins the Marines as a way out of that. When she is punished by being sent to clean out the cages in the KP division, she sees the training being done and feels that this is where she wants to be. She perseveres until she is assigned a dog to bond with, Rex, an aggressive, unruly dog. As they train together, the bond deepens. In time, Leavey and Rex are sent to Iraq, where they go out on combat missions in front of the patrols to search for IEDs. In time, both are injured in an explosion. After Leavey’s enlistment is over, she struggles with PTSD and finding her place in civilian life. She misses Rex, and seeks to adopt him when the Marines retire him. However, because of his temperament and his assault training, he is deemed unadoptable when no longer of use to the Marines. So Leavey begins a campaign to show the world the need to find a safe and loving place for animals like Rex.
The film is directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who previously made the documentary Blackfish about orcas in captivity. She has a sensitivity toward animals as more than just lesser beings. Whereas Blackfish deals with the exploitation of animals, this film sees the animals involved as being part of a team. For Leavey, Rex is not just a tool that can smell explosives; he is an extension of herself. The bond between human and animal becomes the emotional core of the film. For Leavey, the bond with Rex comes more naturally than bonds with people: including her parents and another Marine dog handler whom she dates. As she says early in the film, “I don’t really connect with people very well.” Yet her bond with Rex will push her out of her comfort zone in order to find a way to bring him home.
Much of the film is a war story, but it then moves into being about adjustments that veterans face. In some ways, it also recognizes that the military animals are also war veterans. As her trainer tells her, these dogs have the same issues as Marines. PTSD may not be limited to humans. After a career in the military, how would a dog be expected to fit into normal life? That is a key in Leavey’s struggle to adopt Rex—it is the problem, but it is also the reason for her perseverance.
The film is very conventional, but it does have its inspirational moments. The heroics portrayed are not limited to the battlefield, but to the commitment Leavey has towards Rex and to her own recovery. It is in being together again that they both can find a place of healing.
Photos courtesy of Bleecker Street Media