At first, it seems extremely unfortunate Devotion is released in the shade of Top Gun: nonconformistthe absolute domination of the box office of 2022. Devotion it’s another film about elite naval pilots, with training sequences, practical effects galore, and a snowy weather rescue. He also co-stars Glen Powell, who he plays maverickhe is the mocking and wicked ace of the hanged man. So it’s easy to imagine the cinematic story of real-life pilot Jesse Brown (the MCU’s Kang, Jonathan Majors) being overshadowed by the super-powered nostalgia around Tom Cruise returning to one of his best-known roles, especially considering that Devotion‘s Korean War-era hardware isn’t quite as explosive as this year’s biggest blockbuster jets.
On the other hand, Top Gun: nonconformist has achieved such a rarefied level of success that it might build an appetite for similar material, rather than dwarf another image of a fighter pilot by comparison. If he calls Devotion an unofficial Top Guns the prequel feels too low-key, try this: in some ways, it’s a more beautiful and moving experience than Cruise’s showdown turned victory lap.
Devotion takes place in 1950, at the beginning of the Korean War, sometimes referred to as a “forgotten” war due to the lack of attention it received compared to World War II or the subsequent conflict in Vietnam. Devotion pilots Tom Hudner (Powell) and Jesse Brown (Majors) are members of the Silent Generation, more spiritually than technically: Born at the end of the Greatest Generation that went into World War II, both enter the fray just as that war is ending. They are eager to serve, but both understand the gravity of the duties they have undertaken.
This is especially true of Jesse, the first black pilot to complete the US Navy training program. His wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson, who plays a woman who in this story could also be called Worried Supportive), waits at home with their child. Assigned to work with Tom, Jesse is guarded at first; some of the film’s best moments come during the breaks where Jesse is clearly deciding what and how much to tell his colleagues. He’s too proud for submission, but too restrained for physical confrontation, and the film is nuanced in acknowledging how Tom’s blunt decency doesn’t necessarily give him a complex understanding of the racial dynamics at play. His efforts to help his new wingman are not always welcome. His character arc is about his tacit realization that he won’t, in fact, serve as Jesse’s designated white savior.
For the most part, nothing particularly seismic or unpredictable happens Devotion. Tom and Jesse grow closer, even though they are not inseparable. Their squadron trains and then departs as the Korean conflict escalates. The only other character who makes much of an impression is the squad’s commanding officer, Dick Cevoli (Thomas Sadoski), who at one point speaks openly to Tom about the life’s worth of “showing up,” rather than flashy heroism.
Yet the film’s combination of squareness and relative understatement, courtesy of director JD Dillard (Trick), accumulates silent power. Not everyone grew up idolizing Tom Cruise’s smug Maverick, and this is a naval aviator movie without so much need for speed. As a result, air combat isn’t as exciting as similar material maverick. But it looks convincing, and there’s something satisfying about the way it emphasizes precision over power. Throughout the film, Dillard and Majors find notes of grace, like the moment Dillard’s camera remains fixed on the nose of a grounded plane as Jesse gets his bearings, or the surprising look at Jesse’s pre-flight ritual. He stares into the mirror, reciting every nasty sack he’s ever been dealt, and Dillard films it so that Majors is facing directly at the camera, torturing and toughening himself at the same time.
It’s far more powerful than the film’s occasional attempts to insert snippets of contemporary vernacular into the proceedings, the most glaring of which sees a black military man approaching Jesse on behalf of a group working on the aircraft carrier and saying, “See you. “At least the movie stops before someone tells Tom to check his privilege. This stuff works best when the movie doesn’t reframe the conflicts in more modern terms.
Devotion it never feels like a textbook – history or sociology – because Dillard displays such impressive command of the material. Aided by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, he lends the film’s visual tone a somber and subdued quality, toning down the rah-rah elements inherent in a film depicting a military conflict out of context. This film isn’t a particularly astute depiction of war, but it deftly depicts sacrifice – something ultimately missing from the film star’s restoration of Top Gun: nonconformist. Comparing the two films isn’t particularly fair, but it’s still worth noting that this smaller production is doing more with less.
Devotion opens in theaters November 23.