“Megan Leavey” is one-half of an unremarkable war movie, followed by a touching story about the importance of animals in people’s lives. Fortunately, the stronger part is saved for last.
To call the first half unremarkable requires a clarification: The war service of Megan Leavey, a real-life person, would be the remarkable and central experience in any individual’s life. After the things she went through, this woman will never lack substance for nightmares. But as war movies go, the Iraq portion of “Megan Leavey” pales in comparison to other Iraq war movies that we’ve seen and internalized.
The different angle here is that Leavey was partnered with a dog in a canine bomb-sniffing unit. Her job was to bond with her German shepherd and go ahead of the troops, looking for landmines. Speaking as someone who gets stressed out simply inspecting a hotel room for bed bugs, I can’t even imagine this ultimate case of searching for what you hope not to find.
And of all people to find herself with such a responsibility: As played by Kate Mara, Megan is a small-town screw-up. Her mother (Edie Falco) is superficial and unloving. Her prospects are nonexistent, and she is in grief about the drug-related death of a friend. Mara gives Megan a slight quality of disconnection, suggestive of either a lack of intelligence or of a weird, finely-tuned sensibility.
For half of its running time, “Megan Leavey” shuffles along in a dutiful and mildly interesting way. She joins the marines, then becomes interested in joining the canine unit. Finally, she meets her dog, Rex, who looks like Rin Tin Tin but acts like Cujo, at least at first. None of this is bad, none of this is boring. It’s all watchable, but not especially compelling.
It’s not until the movie makes its turn that “Megan Leavey” makes the case for itself. This is not a movie about some amazing thing that happened in the Iraq war. It’s not a movie about a great marine’s military exploits. It’s a movie about a woman and her dog, about the love — yes, love; not just a bond, but real, actual, soul-nurturing, life-expanding love — that can happen between a human being and an animal.
When “Megan Leavey” makes that switch, it opens up. The lights go on. The movie is no longer routine. It has a soul. Mara opens up, too. And suddenly, everything that previously made Megan Leavey an improbable subject for the cinematic treatment becomes a virtue. Yes, this is someone damaged. Yes, this is someone cut off from her mother and detached from her surroundings. All the more reason she needs a friend, specifically this dog friend, with whom she shared the most intense experience of her life.
In “Megan Leavey,” the important things in it come later. The movie deepens and grows into a fairly moving experience.