At first, it seems supremely unlucky that Devotion is being released in the shadow of Top Gun: Maverick’s utter domination of the 2022 box office. Devotion is another movie about elite naval pilots, featuring training sequences, practical effects galore, and a snowy climactic rescue. It even co-stars Glen Powell, who plays Maverick’s sneering, villainous ace Hangman. So it’s easy to imagine the cinematic story of real-life pilot Jesse Brown (the MCU’s Kang, Jonathan Majors) getting overshadowed by the superpowered nostalgia around Tom Cruise returning to one of his best-known roles, especially given that Devotion’s Korean War-era hardware isn’t as high-octane as the jets in this year’s biggest hit.
On the other hand, Top Gun: Maverick has reached such a rarefied level of success that it could create an appetite for similar material, rather than making another fighter-pilot picture pale in comparison. If calling Devotion an unofficial Top Gun prequel seems too diminishing, try this: In some ways, it’s a finer and more moving experience than Cruise’s reckoning turned victory lap.
Devotion takes place in 1950, at the outset of the Korean War — sometimes referred to as a “forgotten” war because of the lack of attention it received compared to World War II or the later 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 tail end of the Greatest Generation that went off to World War II, they both enter the field just as that war is ending. They’re eager to serve, but they both understand the gravity of the duties they’ve assumed.
This is especially true of Jesse, the first Black pilot to complete the U.S. Navy’s training program. His wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson, playing a woman who in this telling might as well be named Worried Supportive), waits at home with their toddler. Assigned to work with Tom, Jesse is guarded at first; some of the film’s best moments come during the pauses where Jesse is clearly deciding what and how much to say to his colleagues. He’s too proud for subservience, but too controlled for physical confrontation, and the movie is nuanced in acknowledging how Tom’s ramrod-straight decency doesn’t necessarily lend 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 unspoken realization that he is not, in fact, going to serve as Jesse’s designated white savior.
Nothing especially seismic or unpredictable happens for most of Devotion. Tom and Jesse grow closer, though they aren’t inseparable. Their squadron trains, then ships out as the Korean conflict escalates. The only other character who makes much impression is the squad’s commanding officer, Dick Cevoli (Thomas Sadoski), who at one point offers straight talk to Tom about the value of a lifetime of “showing up,” rather than flashy heroism.
Yet the film’s combination of squareness and relative understatement, courtesy of director J.D. Dillard (Sleight), accumulates a quiet power. Not everyone grew up idolizing Tom Cruise’s smug hotshot Maverick, and this is a Naval-aviator movie without quite so much need for speed. Accordingly, the aerial combat isn’t as big-canvas thrilling as similar material in Maverick. But it does look convincing, and there’s something satisfying about how it emphasizes precision over power. Throughout the film, Dillard and Majors find grace notes, like the moment where Dillard’s camera stays fixed on the nose of a grounded plane as Jesse gets his bearings, or the striking look at Jesse’s preflight ritual. He stares at himself in the mirror, reciting every ugly dismissal ever thrown his way, and Dillard shoots this so Majors faces the camera directly, torturing and steeling himself at the same time.
It’s far more powerful than the movie’s occasional attempts to insert bits of contemporary vernacular into the proceedings, the most glaring of which has a Black serviceman approaching Jesse on behalf of a group working on the aircraft carrier, and telling him, “We see you.” At least the movie stops short of having anyone tell Tom to check his privilege. This stuff works best when the movie doesn’t rephrase the conflicts in more modern terms.
Devotion never feels like a textbook — history or sociology — because Dillard shows such impressive command of the material. Aided by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, he gives the movie’s visual tone a hushed, dusky quality, mitigating the rah-rah elements inherent in a movie that depicts a military conflict out of context. This film isn’t a particularly astute portrayal of war, but it does ably depict sacrifice — something ultimately missing from the movie-star restoration of Top Gun: Maverick. Comparing the two movies isn’t especially fair, but it’s still worth noting that this smaller production is doing more with less.
Devotion debuts in theaters on Nov. 23.