Megan Leavey (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hr. 56 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 3; Sex/Nudity -2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 16:13-14

Megan & Rex ready to detect IEDs in Iraq.             (c) Bleecker Street

Veteran movie-goers will recall many movies about a master and a dog that tug at the heart when circumstances separate the owner, usually a likable boy (remember Lassie, Come Home?), from pooch. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film is sort of a combination of the 1943 film and The Hurt Locker. Featuring Kate Marla in her best role yet, this “based on a true story” film is part military and part redemption themed, as well the bonding of pet and mistress.

Megan is a listless young woman living with her mother Jackie (Edie Falco) and Jim (Will Patton), the latter who had once been her father’s best friend until he and her mother had cheated on him. Unable to hold a job and depressed over the death of her best (and probably only) friend, Megan joins the Marines, like so many young people, as an escape and as a means of finding order in their haphazard lives. After making it through the tough basic training, she again screws up her life at Camp Pendleton in California while she is out carousing with her friends and is caught urinating in public.

She is punished by being sent to the K-9 unit to clean out the dog cages. There she falls under the tutelage of the tough but kindly Sgt. Gunny Martin (Common) who demands of her, “What’s your problem, Leavey? Why’re you here?” She does not know, but during her unpleasant chores she observes fellow Marines with their dogs in training to detect IEDs, mines, and caches of guns and ammunition. It is the warm bond between handlers and dogs that attract her.

However, her newfound purpose to become a dog handler is not enough. Megan’s service record is so mediocre that she does not qualify—that is, until she buckles down and trains hard to up her marksmanship score and every other required skill. We can tell that Gunny is pleased with her when he finally gives in and assigns her—not a live dog, but a stand-in, a metal box with a leash that she drags over the training course as if it were a canine. She has had a run-in with the meanest dog in the unit, a German Shepard named Rex, and it is of course Rex that she is paired with when he bites his current handler’s arm so viciously that several bones are broken. With a lot of patience and time, Megan manages to calm the troubled dog down so that the two can go through the drills of sniffing out contraband.

Veteran handler Andrew Dean (Tom Felton), recently returned from Iraq, joins the training staff. Watching Megan and Rex closely during their practice sessions, he tells her, “I can’t teach you to bond. Listen to him. Everything you feel goes down the leash.” As the training progresses Megan sneaks Rex out of his cage and beds down with him in her room, she and the dog growing closer.  Rex has at last found a human he can trust.

Soon, dressed in combat gear, she and Rex are aboard a huge plane bound for Iraq where they are badly needed. None of the planners of the war had figured on the terrorists using IEDs, a weapon so deadly that hundreds of American soldiers are being killed and wounded. On patrol along a desert road, the pair find the hidden devices, Megan marking their location with small flags attached to a wire stand. The two accompany a unit searching the shop of a rug merchant. At first the man seems innocent, but Megan, sensing Rex’s uneasiness, sends the dog up onto a high stack of rugs. Rex sniffs out a large cache of guns, grenades, and ammunition hidden in the wall. The pleased officer in charge tells her that they have potentially saved hundreds of lives.

With her renewed sense of purpose and self-respect Megan now relates better with humans, especially Cpl. Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez), a fellow handler from New York who enjoys bantering with her over rival sports teams. Their relationship might have blossomed, but then Megan and Rex become embroiled in a firefight between her unit and a band of terrorists who have hidden themselves amidst the ruins of some nearby buildings, an explosion injures both handler and dog. Fortunately, they quickly recover and continue the search for IEDs while bullets and propelled grenades strike near them. There are so many attackers that the Americans have to call in helicopters to fly them to safety.

Both handler and dog are commended with medals, and Megan decides to leave the service now that her tours of duty are over. She hopes to be able to adopt Rex and provide a good home for him. Morales decides to stay in the service, so they reluctantly part. It is now that Megan’s second battle begins, one fought on two fronts. The first is a struggle with PTSD, which alienates her from her family, and the second is with the military bureaucracy that refuses to give her custody of Rex. The latter is complicated by the hostility that the veterinarian in charge of the care of the dogs harbors toward both her and the animal, one that she considers unstable and vicious.

The last act of the film is thus a suspenseful one in which Megan enlists the media and a politician in her campaign. Looking smart in her uniform, she finds both sympathetic. Her on-line petition brings thousands to her side, which proves to be very helpful in gaining the most powerful ally of all, New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer (Fred Galle).

As a tale of redemption and bonding with “the least of these,” this will be an inspiring film for viewers, all the more because the story is true. The filmmakers keep the focus narrow—there is no hint of a political or moral comment on the nature of “Bush’s War.” Nor is there any hint of the allegedly wide spread sexual abuse suffered by some women in the armed services. In this film the protagonist just happens to be a woman, though we might detect a bit of feminist sentiment in that she is shown competently, no, heroically, performing what traditionally was considered a “man’s job.” (It should be noted that the director is a woman, one with a subtle touch.) A good film for the family, especially ones with a daughter and a pet dog.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the July 2017 issue of VP.

American Sniper (2014)

Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 6; Language 8; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 And the women sang to one another as they made merry, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”

1 Samuel 18:7

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Positioned on a rooftop so he can watch American soldiers and other rooftops, Kyle takes aim on a target.       (C) 2014 Warner Bros

I was ambivalent at first about this film the subject of which is Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a sniper billed as “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history.” Especially as this was within a few days of having seen the film featuring America’s advocate of nonviolence, Selma. Although some of that ambivalence remains, I am impressed that there is no Green Berets jingolism or glorification of violence in what amounts to a study of the influence of violence upon a decent man of faith and his family.

Jason Hall’s script in a flashback shows us that Kyle came by his creed of “God, country, family” at an early age. During a family meal following a fight at school when young Chris had defended his younger brother Jeff from bullies, Mr. Kyle asserts that people fall into three categories, “sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.” The latter are those brave souls blessed with aggressive gifts and called to protect the innocent from the wicked wolves. The father tutors the boy in the ways of the hunt, proud when the lad drops a buck with just one shot. Once the action in Fallujah starts, we soon see that Chris Kyle continues to see himself as a protector, “a sheepdog,” no longer just his brother, but also of the men who stalk the enemy “wolves” through the dangerous streets of the town.

Kyle was motivated to enlist in the SEALs by seeing on TV attacks on US Embassies over seas in 1998 and the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. During his rigorous, even brutal, training he meets in a bar Taya (Sienna Mithe), the woman whom he marries shortly before shipping out to Iraq. When his great accuracy with a rifle is discovered, his mission becomes that of lying on a roof with his highpowered rifle to protect his comrades below going door to door in search of terrorists.

His first two kills test his power of observation and ability to make a flash decision. He had seen a man on a rooftop talking on his cellphone. Speaking through his headphone, Kyle receives a green light to shoot if he thinks he is talking to terrorists. Kyle’s comrade suggests the man could be speaking with his girlfriend, so the sniper holds his fire. The man leaves, and in a moment a woman and a boy emerge from the same building.They walk toward an oncoming line of US soldiers. Sensing that there is something beneath her robe, he watches intently. His handler gives him the greenlight to fire, but reminds him that prison awaits if he kills the boy and he turns out to be innocent. There is a brief glimpse of a long-handled grenade, fully exposed during the split second when she slips the weapon to the boy. Hoping that they are not intent on what he suspects, Kyle still holds his fire, but when the boy starts running, the sniper brings him down with one shot. The next one kills the woman. The thrown handgrenade falls short, exploding a few feet in front of the American soldiers.

Clearly, this will not be a conventional war with uniformed soldiers shooting at each other across well defined lines. Kyle wracks up many more kills, these all very defintely male terrorists. Soon he has gained the nickname “Legend,” soldiers grateful for his watchful eye that has saved the lives of many of his guys. He carries with him the same small New Testament that we had seen him using when he was a boy sitting in church with his family, though a comrade observes that he has never seen him read it. Kyle’s reputation has also spread among the Iraqi enemy so that they put a large bounty on his head.

In between his tours (four of them) Kyle, although he is able to thoroughly enjoy the birth of his first son, has trouble adjusting to ordinary life. He even feels a bit guilty that his guys are in danger back in Iraq while he is enjoying his family in safety. One of his tours is consumed with hunting down a Muslim sniper who also enjoys torturing any Iraqi who dares give information to Americans. The Muslim is dubbed “The Butcher” because of his practice of chopping off limbs of his victims. Back home Kyle becomes more and more detached from his growing family. Despite pleas from Taya, he refuses to talk about his experiences. He almost obsesses about his mission to protect his men.

This is the best film since Unforgiven wherein director Clint Eastwood treats the theme of violence and its effect on the human psyche. The film’s focus is narrow, never getting into the politics of the war. Kyle and his men do not question its purpose, nor ever mention or comment on President Bush. Their understanding of the big picture is similar to that of the foot soldier in the early stages of the Vietnam War—they are there to fight the bad guys. The only hint of dissent is when Chris and his brother Jeff, also now a soldier, briefly encounter each other at an airport, and Jeff, looking disillusioned, makes a negative comment on the war. We are shown almost no Muslims except for terrorists and one family that pays dearly for cooperating with Americans. The head of a family who offers them hospitality, turns out…well, see for yourself.

This, Mr. Eastwood’s second film in 2014 (Jersey Boys was released last June), is tense and tragic, part of the last being that just as Kyle is finding healing for himself by helping other troubled vets, he is killed by one of them. Bradley Cooper, beefed up and sporting a beard, deserves his Best Actor nomination, and though I would prefer Selma or Birdman to win the Best Picture award, it is easy to understand why the Academy members voted this excellent film for consideration.

People of faith who do not buy into the mythology of “God, country, family” that constitutes the Gospel According to the NRA will find plenty to think about and discuss in this film. How a person can read the Gospel According to Matthew and claim to have no qualms about all the people he has shot reveals the ability to compartmentalize one’s life—there is a “religion” box and that of “soldier.” How else could one live with such conflicting values pulling in opposite directions? Back in October of 2006 Mr. Eastwood released the film about the brutal Battle for Iwo Jima entitled Flags of Our Fathers. This was followed in February of 2007 with what amounted to his tribute to the courage of the Japanese defenders of the island, Letters From Iwo Jima (a subtitled film, at that!). It would be good if he could do the same for the Iraqi radicals, perhaps showing us why the Muslim sniper “The Butcher” became so anti-Western. The closest anyone has done this is David O. Russell in Three Kings, a film about the Persian Gulf War in which an Iraqi soldier explains that he is torturing an American soldier because American planes bombed and killed his family at the beginning of the war.

Some will like Sniper because of its well-staged battle scenes and moments of intense suspense, but let us hope too that it will help all of us understand why so many former combatants need help in re-entering civilian life. In the training sequence we see the humanity brutally forced out of recruits to make way for the detached ruthlessness with which they will use their combat skills to become killers. Surely our government can expend just as much time and treasury helping them to regain that humanity.

This review, with a set of discussion questions, will be in the  25th Anniversary  issue of Visual Parables, Feb. 2014.