I think we should get an ugly little detail out of the way so we don’t have to mention it again in this review as it’s a rather unfair talking point, but one that I do believe deserves touching on. There’s a sort of unfortunate timing with the release of Devotion, but not due to any fault of its own, but rather another film. Originally slated for a July 2019 release, Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick was initially delayed to 2020 for production delays, but soon became the poster child for films indefinitely delayed by the new-at-the-time COVID-19 pandemic. After riding what they could out of the pandemic, Top Gun: Maverick released to theaters in May 2022 and brought with it stellar reviews and an even more stellar box office return of nearly $1.5 billion. I mention this because, when Devotion, another film focusing on ace pilots in the U.S. military (albeit in a vastly different time period) with exciting aerial photography, as well as starring Top Gun: Maverick star Glen Powell, was developed, Top Gun: Maverick was slated for release soon after, and then it wasn’t, and the rest is history. There are going to be a lot of comparisons between these two films, and while some are absolutely obvious, as mentioned above, it’s also a bit unfair to compare a mega-budget Tom Cruise-led giga-blockbuster to a quieter, more somber war drama that might evoke similar feelings on a much smaller budget. It’s something I needed to get out of the way, so I don’t have to mention it again. There are tragic similarities that come from these two films releasing so closely with each other, though it’s important to remember that A. Devotion is based on a true story that happened 36 years before the first Top Gun ever hit screens, and B. It was never the intention for them to line up so closely. This is the last of my comparing the two films.
In 1950, at the onset of the Korean War, fighter pilot Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) joins a team of elite U.S. Navy pilots after his graduation from the Naval Academy. Hudner is quickly paired with skilled aviator Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) as his wingman. Brown, while looking to prove himself on an objective level, attracts attention as the Navy’s first Black aviator. While their relationship is mildly strained initially, Tom soon warms up to Jesse through his wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson) and baby daughter, Pam. Before too many connections can be made, the team is called in to begin operations that will soon begin the Korean War. Seeing their first trial by combat, Tom and Jesse’s tight bond is put to the test when the spoils of war threaten to tear everything they’ve once held dear away from them.
Devotion, at the end of the day, is pretty standard war film fare that finds itself indubitably elevated by some genuinely impressive direction at the hands of J.D. Dillard (Sleight, Sweetheart), who takes on his first large-scale production with a quiet confidence that can often be overdone by more overly zealous indie filmmakers making their first studio film. This is a sleek, attractive film that utilizes mostly practical filmmaking techniques over blanketed CGI (when there is CGI, it is unfortunately a little more noticeable to the eye because of how the rest of the film looks), and while the fight sequences can pale in comparison to other films of the ilk (NOT Top Gun: Maverick, I said I wasn’t referencing that again, and I won’t, I’m talking about other films), the remainder of Devotion, which works better as a war drama than a straight-up action film, delivers.
This drama is all the more heightened by the absolutely captivating chemistry between Majors and Powell, two actors who act as genuine movie stars of the new generation amongst a sea of forgettable faces. These two possess a rare quality that connected me to their personal relationship that elevated much of the more conventional material of Devotion to something that touched me more than many war films could ever hope to. There’s an almost “naive puppy befriending cold housecat” energy to Powell’s and Majors’s relationship in the film, and seeing both of them come to a more mutual standing of understanding each other’s worlds provided Devotion with an emotional core that will be the lasting impression of the film for me.
Though, it’s not just Majors and Powell who use their time wisely, but rather Christina Jackson, who eats up every scene she is featured in as if the film should’ve been titled Daisy instead of Devotion. This is one of those performances that justifies how important a good supporting role is to a film’s thematic completeness. I feared, initially, she would fall into the role that all wives do in war films where the husbands trek off to war while they stay at home with the kids, but both Jackson, as well as Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart’s screenplay, give Daisy a much more impactful role and presence into the film that I couldn’t get enough of. A true star on the rise.
The rest of Devotion plays out pretty much how you would expect it to. It’s got the obligatory “Inspired by a true story” card at the start of the film, a smart-mouthed team of aviators supporting the leads, the tragic early film death of a lovable bit player, the obligatory mid-film comic relief section, the emotional third act tough decision that weighs heavy on the protagonists, and the also obligatory wrap up text that give context to what the film’s real-life counterparts did after the events of the film. It really is all standard-issue war film material, but when the film captures your heart the way Devotion does through its performances, as well as its above average direction, these motions that might seem rote on paper go down with a much greater ease. I’ve found this to be Black Label Media’s niche within the film world, with films like Only the Brave and 12 Strong exceeding in these aspects, also. I can’t say I dislike that talent; it only makes moviegoing more involving, even if it’s not always groundbreaking.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Screening during Film Fest 919 2022.
In theaters November 23rd, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Devotion website.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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