Jonathon Majors soars above an ordinary narrative about an extraordinary man. Devotion has the gravitas of a decent drama one could stumble across on television. On the big screen, Devotion has subservient CGI within its aerial combat that can rob the audience of action that could be an equally thrilling viewing experience from home. But only if you have surround sound. Otherwise, go to the theater for the auditory experience. Due to unfortunate circumstances of pop culture timing, Devotion will draw parallels to Top Gun: Maverick.
In reality, comparisons shouldn’t be tethered, yet one’s mind can’t help but compare the films on a technical level. Where Maverick excels as a theatrical experience thanks to an emphasis on action over story, Devotion is a film focused more on character than visual set pieces. As a film in and of itself, Devotion is a better picture than any Top Gun movie could ever be since it deals with mature issues that go beyond beach volleyball. However, Devotion brings to question whether venturing to the theater is still worth taking for every film.
The combat in Devotion is sometimes serviceable and impressive when it utilizes all practical elements on the screen. When the planes are real instead of an Unreal Engine cartoon, it’s noticeable. But none of it takes my breath away the way Top Gun does. It’s the character that makes the film shine, which could glisten much brighter on a streaming market.
I’m beginning to grow tired of the word conventional. It’s used (even by myself) to describe something ordinary. There’s nothing that rises above the conventionality of a movie’s script. Conventional insights predictability married to mediocrity. In truth, conventions work because they’re relatable. How a director plays with them is what separates the regular filmmakers from the incredible ones.
There are glimmers of powerful moments, yet most of the picture follows the story beats of the typical propaganda war film, complete with faceless enemies from the opposite side. During the Korean War, two Navy pilots become best friends forever. Tom Hunter (Glen Powell) is in training at the Navy before potentially being deployed for actual combat. In his squad is Jesse Brown (Jonathon Majors). During 1950 it’s imaginable that being a black man in the military wasn’t easy to live with. Luckily, Brown’s bunkmates have his back as he for his co-pilots. Regardless, the occasional racist not in Brown’s squadron gives Jesse the occasional snarling glance and prejudice joke.
Wanting to help his friend, Tom tries to reach out to Jesse, hoping for him to open up when all Jesse wants to do is close himself off from matters a white man would understandably have difficulty understanding. In Tom’s defense, his inquisitiveness toward Jon’s feelings is logical, given their first encounter.
Tom is gathering his belongings in the ship’s locker room when hearing a voice coming from the bathroom area. The voice is Jesse’s, yet we haven’t seen his face yet. All we hear is a man speaking hatefully to himself while enduring unbearable psychological pain.
Later we see Majors performing the same ritual in the bathroom, but this time the camera holds onto his face for an uncomfortably long time. Majors is filmed at a fourth-wall-breaking angle as the lens acts as the mirror Jesse addresses himself at. Major’s face goes through a range of emotions that’s incredible to witness. Like a light switch, Major’s face goes from natural to traumatized and back to relaxed in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, the film’s lead doesn’t have the same elegance as Mr. Majors.
Where Jonathon Majors is giving the audience every bit of emotion he can muster, Glen Powell appears stoic. His face doesn’t move much beyond an inch, and the lines he’s given admittedly doesn’t give Powell much to chew on. Yet the narrative follows its story through Powell’s perspective when it’s better served to stay centric on Majors’ character. The story of Jesse Brown is a true one. Brown is known to be one of the best pilots in the Navy during the Korean War, who happened to be a black man. For his race, Jesse is unrecognized for his talents by everyone except for his squad mates in the sky. Seeing Jesse Brown’s tale told through the perspective of a white guy who was his friend is the type of Hollywood conventionality that significantly hinders the story’s narrative impact.
Even if telling Jesse’s story through his perspective, Devotion could still follow the thematic tools Selma and Till uses at their disposal to provide a much greater subtext for a racially driven film. Thankfully, a good portion of J.D. Dillard’s film focuses on Jesse by the middle act before returning to Tom Hunder. When Jonathon Majors pilots the ship, he carries the film’s emotional resonance on his wings. If not for Jonathon Major’s screen presence, Devotion could have headed toward a crash course of mundane Hollywood familiarity.
Devotion releases nationwide in theaters on November 23