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
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.