November 19, 2022
There have been several instances of two nearly identical movies released questionably close to each other. 1998 saw both the A Bug’s Life/Antz and Armageddon/Deep Impact debacles, with the former winning out in each scenario. And 2013 had both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, with the former winning again as it gained two sequels in London Has Fallen and Angel Has Fallen. Now in 2022, we have Top Gun: Maverick and Devotion, two aviation-centered films that star Glen Powell and feature a sequence where one fighter pilot has to save his buddy after they crash land in a snowy forest. And just like all the other examples, the former (clearly) wins out in this case, with Maverick soaring high above the clouds while Devotion never gets off the ground.
To give both movies the benefit of the doubt, their similarities in both plot and release dates are due to circumstances mostly outside of their control. Maverick was shot in 2019 and ready to go in early 2020, but was held for release until this summer on account of Tom Cruise’s insistence on a full-scale theatrical release (a bet that paid off in full as the film became the highest-grosser of the year and Cruise’s career at $1.5 billion). Devotion didn’t sit on the shelf as long, with filming taking place in early 2021 and normal visual effects work taking place afterward. And to Devotion’s credit again, its story is based on actual people and events during the Korean War, while Maverick is entirely fictional.
But the one thing that Maverick has (in spades) that Devotion doesn’t is a sense of energy and thrill. That unparalleled theatrical experience is why Maverick will likely outgross franchise blockbuster staples like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Avatar: The Way of Water. Director J.D. Dillard doesn’t try to replicate that for Devotion, instead giving it a more dignified sense of importance through slower pacing and subtlety. It’s an admirable angle, at least on paper. But in execution, it strips the film of all forward momentum and makes the 138-minute runtime feel like 1380 minutes.
Jonathan Majors stars as Jesse Brown, one of the only African-American aviators within the Navy. Jesse is the strong and silent type, mostly because he knows that standing up to anyone or lashing out in anger will destroy all his life’s work. Transferring in as his new wingman is Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, also an executive producer). The pair don’t become fast friends, but they do become brothers born in combat as they get shipped off to the frontlines of Korea as the threat of a third World War becomes evermore present.
Like Dillard’s direction, Jack Crane and Jonathan Stewart’s stilted screenplay doesn’t play above the military tropes we’ve come to expect. There’s flyboy camaraderie, a racist bully, a mission with 1000/1 odds, and a spouse back at home getting teary-eyed as she reads letters on the front step. Majors and Powell do their best to inject a little life from time to time, but there’s nothing they can do to battle the mundanity of everything surrounding them.
It’s hard to imagine who Devotion will fully satisfy. Enthusiasts of historical dramas (such as myself) will find it all too simplistic and clichéd; action junkies won’t walk away awed by the CGI-tainted flight set pieces, and Majors and Powell fans won’t get anything from their by-the-book characters. Just as the Korean War holds the moniker “America’s forgotten war,” Devotion will have to make do with being “America’s forgotten 2022 aviation film.”