Toronto 2022 Review: Devotion
The ripple effects of the pandemic-induced movie delays are still reaching far and wide, and I expect that JD Dillard’s new film Devotion may be the latest to feel the impact, though not in a direct sense. You see, had Top Gun: Maverick come out when originally planned, there would have been some distance between it and the other Glen Powell-starring fighter pilot movie, but given how strongly Top Gun hit (and continues to hit) with audiences, it may be impossible to avoid saddling Devotion with at least some related baggage. Which is a shame, because at its core, Devotion is a very different film than Maverick — a less successful one in many respects, but commendable in its own right.
The film centers around naval fighter pilot Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), whose groundbreaking service during the Korean War inarguably merits a story of this size and scope. Though Brown is the focus, his friend and wingman Tom Hudner (Powell) plays nearly as large a role, and the film is at its best when it allows the two men to play off each other in situations where the stakes are significantly lower. For anyone paying attention, Majors and Powell are both sitting on the cusp of superstardom, two members of a slightly younger cohort of actors with talent and charisma to spare just waiting for their moment to truly break through. Both have dipped their toes in the franchise well (Powell in Maverick, Majors with Marvel, where he’s poised to take on a larger antagonistic presence), but this provides both with the opportunity to jointly headline a larger-scale production and — despite the film’s other flaws — they make the most of it.
Dillard is a talented director, but he doesn’t do quite enough with the aerial action to avoid an unfortunate comparison to Maverick, and the film suffers somewhat from a script by Jake Crane and Jonathan A.H. Stewart that — while ambitious and beautiful at times — has difficulty deciding exactly what it wants to be. That said, there’s a lot to like here: though interpersonal frictions can feel frustratingly repetitive, the film’s portrayal of the racial dynamics of the time — individual and systemic — are more nuanced than we’re used to in a film like this, including a jarring scene, intensely performed by Majors, reminiscent of a moment from Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. It’s the sort of thing you expect to be sanded down, but its presence is off-kilter enough to make you sit up and pay attention. Similarly, one could argue with the film’s pacing, but a tighter film could have lead to the excising of an extended sequence in the middle of the film involving a brief shore leave in Cannes that is among the most effective; to some extent I’m surprised that sequence is there, especially at its current length, but the film is almost certainly better for it.
Devotion may not be the movie you expect it to be, and you — like me — may find yourself struggling with the notion that there’s a more unconventional film somewhere inside a mostly conventional package. In some ways this idea is validated in the final act. Without giving too much away, the final narrative beats are ones I might have expected to be relegated to ending title cards; the fact that the story ends the way it does changes the temperature of the film in a manner with which I’m still wrestling. At the very least, I appreciate Devotion’s swings, and the ones that connect do so with real, worthwhile, and rewarding impact.