2022 was certainly the year in film for naval aviation. With Tom Cruise stunningly stepping back into the shoes of Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell in a Top Gun sequel that exceeded any and all expectations, and again here with director J.D. Dillard’s Devotion. A retelling of the true story of Jesse Brown (Johnathon Majors), honoured as the first Black man to ever complete the flight program, and his involvement during the Korean war in the early 1950’s.
Perhaps more surprisingly than the close release of these movies which share a similar subject, is the reappearance of Glen Powell – who also played Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin in Top Gun: Maverick – whose 2022 acting accolades have restrained him to a cockpit and has earned the right to be crowned Hollywood’s new favourite wingman.
Given the clear similarities and glowing success of Top Gun: Maverick, it’s impossible to not draw comparisons, and this may seem harsh on the side of Devotion, which is otherwise a very sturdy suspense drama, but its timing perhaps couldn’t have been much worse. On ground level these films show glaring differences. One is designed to be a pop culture thrill ride that serves as a great incentive to get bums back into theatre seats, and the other is a touching tribute to a real life hero and the struggles he faced during his time serving for his country. But when the action takes place in the sky, the two films often feel like mirror images of one another, being separated only by crisper camerawork and stronger details that would have been possible with Top Gun’s bigger budget.
Devotion lacks the flair or finesse of Top Gun: Maverick, but has the heart and sense of realism still attached to it and the story it chooses to tell is one deserved for the screen. Johnathon Majors brings his strong acting prowess to the role of Jesse Brown. His struggles against a society that doesn’t often welcome him is shown throughout, and whether he’s piloting his aircraft or fighting for his own freedom on the ground, his life is a constant battle. The plucky but perturbed Thomas J. Hudner (Powell) is the partner (and friend) that Brown needs and most of the scenes the two share are often the most important.
The history books will certainly remember Top Gun: Maverick more fondly, and perhaps deservedly so, but Devotion as its namesake suggests, is devoted to the story in which it wants to tell. It may not have the flamboyant set-pieces (although one in particular is a head turner) and it may not operate on the same level of popcorn entertainment, but J.D. Dillard’s dedication to its main character and harsher themes are forever present. With the help of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Mank), particularly during the height of the movie’s more tense sequences, Devotion is a film that doesn’t always soar, but when it does get it right becomes a bona fide biopic with enough fuel to keep it from crash landing.