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.

A Dog’s Purpose (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

1 Peter 4:9-10

MomBailBoy

Mom & her son Ethan enjoy a moment with the dog they rescued from a closed-up car. (c) Universal Pictures

The author of 1 Peter was addressing, of course, humans, but his admonition to serve is certainly exemplified by the canine hero/ine in director Lasse Hallstrom’s latest film, based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel. I don’t know all the facts of the controversy over the alleged mistreatment of a dog during the making of the film, but I don’t think that the maker of Hachiko: A Dog’s Story would have allowed this had he known. These two films were helmed by a man who clearly loves “man’s best friend.”

My only qualm is the acceptance of the Eastern doctrine of reincarnation, but this is the link connecting all the dogs in the film, so for the sake of the story, I went along with the concept. As a film that demonstrates love and loss, loyalty and service, this will serve as a good family outing.

The film begins with Bailey philosophizing about the meaning of life. “Are we here for a reason?” the dog (voice of Josh Gad,) asks. (All the sequences are narrated by Bailey.) At first Bailey is

a cuddly golden retriever puppy that 8-year-old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mother (Juliet Rylance) find almost prostrate with heat in a locked car. (That they break the window and take the dog home without any interchange with the car’s negligent owner might require some parental explanation to young viewers, because the film offers none, but hey, this is a movie.)

Ethan’s alcoholic father (Luke Kirby) is dubious at first about keeping the dog, but gives in. There follows a series of events through the next ten years that includes Bailey’s love for retrieving a deflated football for Ethan; the dog’s nudging teenaged Ethan into a relationship with Hannah (Britt Robertson), who soon loves the dog as much as Ethan does; the dashing of their plans to go off to college together; and the inevitable death of the old and sick Bailey at the vet’s office.

Next, Bailey reawakens as a German Shepherd pup named Ellie (quite a shock when the dog notices something is missing between his hind legs). Chosen for the K-9 division of the Chicago Police Department, Ellie forms a close bond with her handler Carlos (John Ortiz). The dog empathizes with the lonely man, still not recovered apparently from the loss of his wife. Their relationship ends abruptly, with Ellie’s heroic act during a kidnaping. As a short-legged Corgi named Tino, the dog provides companionship for still another lonely person, female college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Tino also serves as an agent for romance for Maya and another African American student, also a dog owner.

Last of all, Bailey returns as Buddy, a lost mutt (now a mixture of Australian Shepherd and St. Bernard) who re-enters the life of the now grown Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Companionship and service are again themes because Ethan too is very lonely as a farmer who had given up his dreams of college and a life with Hannah due to a sad event in high school. Again, it is Bailey who brings Ethan and Hannah (Peggy Lipton) back together. When Buddie discovers that old flattened football in the barn, he makes his startled master aware of his identity.

Despite some improbabilities, I think anyone who has ever owned a dog will enjoy this film. It took me back to my childhood days when one of the heartaches growing out of my parents’ divorce was having to give up my pet chow Blackie, one of the joys of which had been for me to emerge from school at the end of the afternoon and find him patiently waiting to walk home with me, (No leash laws or fences in those more innocent days.) Back then my favorite film was Lassie, Come Home, which was to launch several TV series. The euthanasia of the aged Bailey was especially moving because I held Tigger, who had grown up with our children, in my arms while the vet injected the drug that would end his suffering and his life.

The film is often as funny as it is moving, thanks to the comments that Bailey makes. He is not all-knowing, his remarks coming from his limited understanding of human behavior. He doesn’t know what they do when they mysteriously go away, and when the teenaged Ethan and Hannah kiss in the car, he wonders at first if there is food in their mouths that they are sharing or fighting over.

As a tribute to the unconditional love and loyalty of dogs, this is a film both adults and children can enjoy.

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