While ‘Devotion’ may not look to reinvent the genre, it does carve out its own space in this year’s impressive slate of war films.
For audiences who enjoy films about high-flying pilots and the tragedy of war, 2022 has delivered a trio of films that nose-dive and army crawl their way through different wars and their associated war games. Top Gun: Maverick was an awe-inspiring legacy sequel, while All Quiet on the Western Front was a gut-wrenching war horror, but with Devotion, you get a harrowing biopic that is equal parts sky-bound epic and a sobering reminder of the real sacrifices of war.
Based on the true story of Naval Aviator Jesse Brown, Devotion’s title may not immediately make sense, but as the story slowly unwinds, we start to see the layers of different forms of devotion. Jesse (Jonathan Majors) is devoted to his career in the Navy, he’s devoted to his wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) and their daughter Pam, both of which are very expected forms of devotion. But the exploration of devotion at the heart of the film is the unlikely friendship and camaraderie he finds with his wingman Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), and how that bond has carried his memory into the present decade.
Devotion doesn’t get bogged down in the politics of the Korean War, instead hoping that its audience knows enough about the conflict of the war to understand the broad strokes it paints around the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and the fight between North Korea and South Korea. This helps and hinders it to some degree, considering the Korean War is largely viewed as the “Forgotten War,” despite having a direct impact on modern warfare.
J. D. Dillard approaches Jesse and Tom’s story from a place of great respect, but at the same time, he doesn’t fall prey to the temptation to sugarcoat the situation or to embellish the cut-and-dried story that Adam Makos’ similarly titled book laid out. Jesse was the first Black man to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program, he was hailed for breaking barriers, profiled by The Associated Press, and photographed for Life magazine. But he also faced racism—from his neighbors, from his peers, and from the other soldiers that they were shipped off to war with. Dillard shirks the notion of showing opinions changed by harrowing heroism, there is no magical happily ever after, and Tom isn’t treated like a hero simply for being a good friend to Jesse. It’s a rare and welcomed decision in a long list of biopics that dishonor their subjects.
Devotion will likely be subjected to comparisons between it and Maverick, which aren’t entirely unwarranted when Powell is back in aviators for the second time this year, and the story follows familiar beats. But rarely does war or its various war games stray from an anticipated path. Beyond a handful of familiar beats, drawing a serious comparison between the two would be a disservice to what Devotion aims to be. Dillard doesn’t lean into spectacle or awe, instead, he relies on the powerhouse of emotions that Majors delivers in his role, paired with the earnest compassion that Powell brings.
The only area where Devotion truly falls short of perfection is the unremarkable cinematography that plays against the film’s scenery. Cannes is stunning, with brilliant blue skies and rows of pastel-colored architecture, but beyond this location, its other settings feel washed out and made for technicolor. While it’s possible that cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Mank) designed this as an ode to the 1950s of it all, it, unfortunately, shrouds scenes in unnecessary darkness that erodes the vibrancy of the emotion on display.
Despite the impressive cast of Daren Kagasoff, Nick Hargrove, Joseph Cross, Spencer Neville, and Joe Jonas (to name only a handful), Devotion doesn’t take the time to really flesh out the ensemble, and it overlooks some of the more necessary connective tissue in its rush to deliver a tidy 139-minute story. While this isn’t exactly to the detriment of the film’s plot, it does leave audiences wanting more emotional resonance—even as they’re tearing up at the film’s somber conclusion. Most of that falls on the shoulders of the film’s scribes Jake Crane and Jonathan A. Stewart who approach the story from a thousand-foot drop. It ultimately does work to get the audience from points A and B to C, but it left me wanting to see more of the charm and fun of Cannes—which is tragically cut short by the realities of war.
Devotion wouldn’t be half the movie it is without Majors and Powell at the center of the emotional rollercoaster, they’re a dynamite duo that effortlessly delivers on believable conviviality and a sort of brotherhood that would propel someone to make it their life’s mission to bring the other home. They capture the connection between Jesse and Tom that transcended their own deaths and bring a performance worthy of their legacy.
While Devotion may not look to reinvent the genre, it does carve out its own space in this year’s impressive slate of war films. It’s a solid, straight-laced story, that doesn’t shy away from the realities of war or the 1950s. Once it finds its wings in the final act, it soars to a place of real power.
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