Fighting a War Inside an Empty Yankee Stadium

Watching a film about the second Gulf War in a huge, empty stadium.

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The true story of a Marine who adopted her K9 war buddy after their tour in Iraq, Megan Leavey, premiered this week at Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t exactly a playoff-sized crowd; the guest list was small and exclusive, with moviegoers comprised of the film’s stars — Kate Mara, Common, Edie Falco — as well as the crew and production team, film subject Megan Leavey and some of her Marine buddies, film critics, other members of the armed services, and me.

Though the film Megan Leavey is a complex look at a troubled soldier’s life, the premiere event wasn’t able to live up to its focus. In the event planners’ defense, it’s supremely difficult to pull off a cohesive tone when you cram veterans into the same space as civilians, especially celebrities, and expect everybody to have something to say to each other beyond “I support the troops, do you support the troops?”

When director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) asked members of the military and/or members of their families to raise their hands, I put mine up nice and high. She had the crowd applaud all the veterans in attendance, which was nice, but then proceeded to announce the names of the film’s stars, one by one. They stood to receive applause, effectively getting higher billing than the actual soldiers in the audience.

My parents are both Air Force veterans, and on the red carpet, I explained that to everyone involved in the film who had stopped to talk with me. When they asked to know more, I told them proudly of my father’s accomplishments. He served several tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and around the world. He fought in both Gulf Wars, retired as a Chief Master Sergeant, and received the Bronze Star for leadership while in combat.

Cowperthwaite’s and each of the actors eyes’ glowed when I shared this; they said the right thing, the messages that people in their position often express when they’re involved in these kinds of movies. “I hope the film tells a story about men and women in the military that most people don’t get to hear,” Mara, who plays Leavey, said. When she moved onto the next reporter, I spoke with Ramón Rodríguez, who plays Leavey’s fictional love interest. He echoed Mara’s thoughts, adding with gusto that working on the film taught him a lot about the brotherhood (and sisterhood, he emphasized) present in the United States military.

Ramón Rodríguez plays Megan Leavey's love interest and fellow Marine

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It was only Megan Leavey herself who seemed nonplussed about my questions regarding her military service. When I asked what her fellow soldiers thought about her service being adapted into a film, she said simply, “They haven’t seen it yet.” I asked if she believed the film had a unifying message about women in the military, and she paused, explaining, “This is a story about my life and my relationship with Rex, so I don’t think it tries to say anything broad about women in the military. Some actual people have been combined into one character in the movie,” she added, stressing that much of it had been invented.

The film, based loosely on her life, really portrays Leavey as a brisk, odd person. The first time we see her, she’s hungover at a children’s birthday party, and she gets drunk often enough that it lands her in a disciplinary meeting. Multiple characters allude to her difficulty in making connections with people. We’re meant to conclude that her service in the Marines pushed her to commit to a relationship and fight for it.

Megan and Rex contemplate how the other soldier dogs are doing in the training sessions.

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That relationship, which Rodríguez tells Inverse makes the film a love story more than a war story, unfolds between Leavey and her dog, Rex. It’s the heart of a film that is otherwise pretty depressing; the fictional Leavey joins the Marines because she “wants to get away from [her] shitty life,” and nearly every scene Mara shares with the actors playing her divorced parents (Falco and Bradley Whitford) ends in an argument.

Her fellow soldiers, her commanding officer, and even her parents throw the phrase “war hero” at her, accusing her of continuing to be difficult even after “getting blown up.” Leavey’s intense loneliness hangs over the whole film, which was disconcerting to watch only a few feet from the real Leavey herself, who was glowing in a white party dress among her fellow Marines and didn’t seem as unhappy as Kate Mara’s version. On the jumbotron, Mara’s frown had to have been 50 feet long, her image looming over us as yet another character yelled at her to get her shit together.

To be fair, most events which bring together members of the military with civilians tend to have a strange tone to them. When I use my military dependent ID, (which, to a civilian, looks exactly the same as an active duty soldier’s ID), people tend to thank me for my service. Because strangers get so flustered every time I explain that I’m not actually in the military, and that they meant to thank my father or mother, I just say “thank you” and end the conversation. That’s my impression of military and civilian relations, that even filmmakers telling stories about soldiers aren’t totally sure how to frame anything beyond sincere gratitude for “the troops.”

Rapper and actor Common plays Leavey's superior officer

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“There are people who really identify with stories about the military,” Mara told me on the red carpet, and I found myself nodding, assuming we were talking about the same group of people — my parents and the people they had over for cookouts on the Air Force Base. “I hope that those people see the film and appreciate it,” she added, not suggesting that she deserved gratitude, but that she hoped the movie would satisfy its intended audience.

The intended audience of this movie is a diverse group. There are those who love watching films and long docuseries about conflicts that were fought many generations ago, and exist only in historical records and mythos. But telling stories about more recent wars is tricky. Jarhead and American Sniper focus in on the damage that combat can do to a young man’s mind, but Megan Leavey suggests that going to war was what saved Leavey’s life, if only because it brought her to her dog. How does a film play out when “the troops” we’re following are deeply troubled people?

Tom Felton plays one of Leavey's allies.

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We watch Megan and Rex work their first checkpoint in Iraq, where American soldiers pull over cars driven by Iraqis in order to have Rex sniff them for explosives. A child in one of the cars shyly asks Megan what her dog’s name is, and when she tells him, her commanding officer is livid. “He’s just a kid,” she says, but he suggests that all kids in Iraq have the potential to grow up as terrorists. The line doesn’t land as a damning revelation from the soldier; we don’t really see Megan’s reaction to this warning, and the film moves on, not commenting on what exactly Megan and Rex are doing.

In another scene, Rex sniffs out a collection of weapons behind an Iraqi man’s prayer rugs, and the triumphant scene that follows includes several shots of Megan’s drunk fellow soldiers dancing and scuffing up the rugs. The film isn’t cruel toward its Iraqi characters, per se, but it certainly doesn’t afford any of its surprisingly long run time to the complex situation Megan and her fellow Marines are in. Even The Hurt Locker and American Sniper, two recent films about the second Gulf War, which focused on the American experience, included complex scenes featuring Iraqi characters.

Since the film isn’t really a war story, and it’s not a meditation on Megan Leavey’s brusque personality, the only genre left is “heartwarming dog movie,” though Rex thankfully avoids that genre’s tropes by surviving the film. But even watching Megan Leavey as a dog lover’s film is complicated; Megan and other characters call Rex a veteran without humor, though he obviously didn’t sign up for military service the way Leavey did. Rex does show courage all the same, barking to alert the Marines of impending dangers and leaping out of a moving armored vehicle when Megan falls out into the desert.

If the film was set in Megan’s American hometown, perhaps a story about bonding with an angry and stubborn dog would feel like light, emotionally resonant summer fare. Here, it feels like a strange story about one “difficult” woman who finds herself in Iraq with a similarly “difficult” dog, though neither of them is entirely sure why they’re there.

Watching Megan Leavey in theaters may very well be a different experience than the one I had in a windy, dark Yankee Stadium (the real-life Leavey is a lifelong Yankees fan and is depicted in the film as always wearing a Yankees hat or shirt). As the film began, we all watched the D train clank by, running directly behind the jumbotron. I realized that all the respectful critics and veterans around me were probably the most silent crowd the stadium has ever seen. After all, what can you say to a soldier who says going to war saved her life?

Megan Leavey hits theaters June 9.

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