The FBI historian Richard Gid Powers has this argument about J. Edgar Hoover, during the Cold War, drifting away from promoting the Bureau as science-oriented super cops to an emphasis on domesticity. This resulted in garbage like Disney’s That Darn Cat!, in which agents put a house cat under surveillance to catch bank robbers, as opposed to surveilling, say, Martin Luther King Jr. The problem, according to Powers, was that this created a moral expectation that the FBI was unable to sustain into the 1970s once Hoover died and the scandals started piling up.
The straightforwardly-titled Dog is something of a throwback to this period of kiddifying our national horrors, this time by examining the traumas left by America’s forever wars through the lens of an adorable Belgian Malinois named Lulu. Lulu is a militarily-trained attack dog who has seen some shit, leaving her with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and a retirement plan via lethal injection.
Dog is almost about how easily a vast, apathetic system can discard veterans once they’ve outlived their usefulness, but that would be a huge bummer. So instead, Dog is a buddy comedy about healing.
Enter US Army Ranger Jackson Briggs (Channing Tatum, also co-director), who’s tasked with spiriting Lulu from Washington to Arizona to attend the funeral of Lulu’s handler and subsequently her demise, with ill-advised reenlistment as the agreed-upon reward for this canine betrayal. Combat has left Briggs with seizure-inducing brain damage, a liability on the battlefield, and so, like Lulu, he’s been abandoned by his employers and estranged from his family. Delivering Lulu is his ticket back to the only life he knows.
An episodic road trip ensues, the duo getting into an assortment of near-lethal scrapes because Briggs doesn’t know the fundamentals of even civilian pet care, let alone that of a hair-trigger murder dog. At one point Lulu tears through a crowded hotel to take down a random Middle Eastern fellow, recalling the Samuel Fuller cult classic White Dog. In that film, an actress and Hollywood animal trainer attempt to deprogram a White Shepherd formerly owned by white supremacists, their labors meeting with, uh, mixed results. Dog doesn’t bother digging into any of this, shrugging it off as an inconvenient byproduct of Lulu’s training. Nor is anyone particularly troubled that Lulu is calmed by watching DVD footage of her “greatest hits,” i.e. cam recordings of her successful attacks on enemy combatants that probably super deserved getting mauled by a dog, don’t worry about it. But because Dog can’t afford to alienate anyone in the audience, it makes sure to include a scene in which Briggs tells off a racist San Francisco cop (Bill Burr, distractingly).
It’s in this canny sleight of hand that Dog “succeeds” where something like That Darn Cat fails. Though bumbling, the FBI is presented in that movie as a fundamentally pure and wholesome entity, an easily-dismissed fantasy. Dog is able to diagnose symptoms of a deeper problem without actually holding anyone or anything accountable. Lulu’s training, “hits,” and PTSD are just occupational hazards, narrative challenges to be overcome. The movie suggests that the friendships and communities we form supersede the impersonal power structures and institutional relations—hence Briggs’s friction with, and alienation from, the various military personnel/law enforcement he encounters along the way.
Dog promotes life beyond the military, but only once it’s done with you.
Runtime: 101 minutes
MPA Rating: PG-13
Streaming: Currently in theaters