If you believe the marketing, then Devotion, an inspirational aerial combat epic set during the Korean War, would like very much to be thought of as Top Gun: Corsair.
Strip away the IMAX scope, the booming score and the flyboy swagger, however, and all that remains is a hollow shell of bland, beaten-down war movie tropes that leave Jonathan Majors to effectively fend for himself with his deeply-rooted lead portrayal of the first Black aviator in Navy history.
The Bottom Line
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Release date: Friday, November 23 (Sony)
Cast: Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Christina Jackson, Thomas Sadoski, Joe Jonas
Director: J.D Dillard
Screenwriters: Jake Crane, Jonathan A.H. Stewart
2 hours 18 minutes
Based on the book of the same name by Adam Makos, which described the friendship between Majors’ Jesse Brown and his fellow wingman, Tom Hudner (played by Glen Powell), the story has been brought to the screen by director J.D. Dillard (himself the son of only the second African American member of the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels squadron) with a great deal of respect but insufficient dramatic depth.
Five years have passed since the end of World War II, and, this being 1950, Ensign Brown’s presence in the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program doesn’t exactly go unnoticed; he constantly finds himself brushing off both pointed and casually racist remarks from his fellow officers. When he first meets up with Hudner, a straight-arrow new recruit, Brown proceeds to form a respectful if cautiously arm’s-length friendship with the Annapolis graduate.
A man who contends he’s never met a plane he couldn’t land, Brown begins to doubt his claim when he first climbs into a Vought F4U Corsair, which has earned the ominous nickname “Widow Maker” due in part to its long nose, which obscured visibility, and a tendency to bounce uncontrollably on landing. But soon Brown and Hudner learn to tame the gull-winged aircraft and are assigned to Fight Squadron 32 aboard the USS Leyte prior to the outbreak of the Korean War.
In adapting the Makos novel, screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan A. H. Stewart seem to be content to trot out the usual war picture platitudes with stiff dialogue that has all the personality of an instruction manual. Meanwhile, director Dillard favors drawn-out dramatic pauses that keep getting in the way of crucial tension or momentum. Even a sequence during a leave in Cannes, when a chance beach encounter with Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) results in an invitation to party with her at a casino, ends up feeling lifeless and needlessly. protracted.
Despite those considerable obstacles in his path, Majors, whose recent credits include Lovecraft Country and The Harder They Fall, invests a tremendous amount of emotional conviction in his character — whether he’s playfully engaging at home with his devoted wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), or castigating his reflection in a mirror, painfully reciting every hurtful/racist thing that was ever directed at him.
Powell, who also appeared in Top Gun: Maverick, isn’t given as much to work with — his character is a virtual cypher by comparison, with little in the way of backstory, and only really finds a semblance of purpose when he must come to the rescue of his injured partner.
In the absence of fuller character development, their fellow flyers, including those played by Joe Jonas and Nick Hargrove, have even less opportunity to make an impression.
Fortunately, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Mank) manages to liven things up with those IMAX-worthy aerial visuals, which really didn’t require Chanda Dancy’s over-modulated music cues to kick in at the slightest provocation, even in the absence of a Lady Gaga on the soundtrack.