Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Unhappy landing


Directed by J.D. Dillard
Written by Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart (based on the book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice)

Spoilers: notice that the book it's based on has "sacrifice" in the title

One sometimes runs across a movie that does nothing particularly wrong, but also does nothing particularly right.  Devotion is such a movie, and even that's flattening out some flawswe'll get to how it does, in fact, do a few major things quite particularly wrongbut the main thing is that it's almost never really bad, but it isn't ever really good, either, and never for more than an individual acting beat, or for a particular set of shots of a Grumman Bearcat or Vought Corsair, either in motion or sitting there all nobly.  And that's at least enough that I can't summon any malice about how it doesn't really use its resources well, or tell its story with the kind of overwhelming emotion that a story of racism and friendship and death should easily get toit can still upset you, but that's really the bare minimum for those subjectsthough, fundamentally, the problem isn't that it fails to tell a story well, it's that it runs hard afoul of the biopic problem of virtually failing to tell a story at all.

That it wants to stick to a streamlined and straightforward buddy war template is not the root of that problem, and everything that's good that doesn't arise from real airplanes arises from those buddies instead, and so, in late 1949, we have Lt. Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, somehow playing the literal opposite of Top Gun: Maverick's Hangman), who joins VF-32, the strike fighter squadron of the USS Leyte, where there flies, in no special order, Carol Mohring (Nick Hargrove), Marty Goode (Joe Jonas), Dick Sevoli (Thomas Sadoski), Bill Koenig (Darren Kagasoff), and Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the latter of whom is the first black naval aviator in the United States Navy.  Jesse is not disliked by his immediate comrades, and to some degree any roughness of manner is mirrored in their "look at me, I'm a plane-flying asshole" interactions with each other and with Tom, though they're neither sensitive nor solicitous, and may have their own personal unvoiced discomforts with an integrated armed forces.  They certainly have a nasty penchant for doing things like giving him unflattering odds on whether he'll make a carrier landing with their new aircraft, the hard-to-handle Corsair, or if he'll smash the plane insteadthough it is, at least, also hard to imagine any of them being so ghoulish as to try to settle that bet if he did, which is maybe why that kind of bet always bothers me in movies, because they're basically free money, with no socially-acceptable downside to the guy who puts his chips on "I believe my wingman shall live."  In any case, there is one particular Marine who's a real jerk, and the Department of the Navy likes to show off their shiny new token, but otherwise, it's more of a lack of affinity, and a lack of effort.  Tom sees something he likes in Jesse, however, and he does make an effort, which is a little difficult as Jesse has gotten used to being more at arm's length with his fellowshe doesn't drink, he's married so he doesn't carousebut inch by inch he comes to like Tom, too, even when Tom is sort of overboard, rising to racist challenges Jesse, in his more vulnerable position, would rather avoid.  Tom even meets Jesse's wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson).  By now it's mid-1950, and they get sent to Korea.

If the sort of ambling tone of that summary feels like a mistake to you, it's really just a reflection of how Devotion plays as a film: Jesse and Tom make friends in a natural and almost-inevitable way, as two people who don't have any racial animus but do have a lot in common, flying combat aircraft just for starters, but also being pretty self-contained and, frankly, very square.  These seem like swell dudes, that you would probably also enjoy being friends with (maybe just "enjoy being neighbors with"), and in one of the film's bigger wins Majors and Powell have a really nice chemistry, except it's a curiously endothermic chemistry, two Hank Hills getting along.  But they are not very dynamic to watch, and to the extent this film is the study of a friendship, or two characters, it's inert; this is the story of two men who do not change for 138 minutes.

Probably as a result of this, director J.D. Dillard stages Jesse's initial challenge to Tomsort of a naval flier ritual to prove the latter's mettlein ways that are visually pretty neat in their flyboy-movie boilerplate sort of way, dodging and weaving amongst ship's masts and making dives at, uh, civilian subdivisions, but are a touch dubious as regards the historical Brown's precarity even if they happened, and are so alien to the personality of Jesse the Movie Character that it feels like Dillard was caught in a quandary just to have them do anything together that would be interesting to an audience.  (And if it's a double-bluff secret subtle character revelation, that in the air, Jesse feels unlet's say untetheredthis is not a movie that benefits from requiring thematic unpacking.)  It is not ever unpleasant to watch them together: I don't think they have a scene together that I would call legitimately boring.  I complained that Top Gun: Maverick had no vibe and despite everyone losing their mind over that film, that absence of a vibe nearly killed it for me.  Bless this movie, this is indeed an actual vibe.  It is not, however, remotely a vibe capable of sustaining a film with a runtime this unwieldly, which despite promising something epic barely seems to be aware that "epic" ought to be a goal.

There's just no engine here, or gas; the screenplay appears to have been written under the impression that "being sent to Korea" is a sufficient dramatic situation and everything else would take care of itself.  It has some interest in sociological observation, but no interest in interpersonal conflict, and doesn't maintain such conflicts longer than a scene and a half even in the exceedingly rare case it actually stumbles on any.  At about the 90 minute mark, it finally manages to contrive one, a good one, and which seems like it should be the whole rest of the film: on a sortie which Tom was given command over, Jesse disobeyed a direct order to retreat, in order to hit the target one more timea disobedience that made the mission a more complete success, mind youand Tom dutifully puts this in his report.  This evaporates in minutes, because Tom isn't actually angry that Jesse disobeyed an order and put himself, his best friend, at riskhe's not even committed to any principle, either strict honesty in his words or strict discipline in his subordinatesso now we have the keenest bit of characterization we'll ever wind up with here, and it's that Tom must be a fucking cretin, who genuinely doesn't realize that writing down a disciplinary breach in a report would be a negative for any naval aviator, and double for a black one.  So he tries to fix it with signed statements from his squadron stating that Jesse is still a bad enough dude to rescue the president, or whatever.  He says he's sorry, Jesse doesn't really have much of an alternative but to shrug it off.  And that's it: this is the most intense personal conflict the film ever threatens.

The alternative to this absence of drama could be worse.  It could just be Jesse and his pal Tom facing naked, unadorned racismit sort of is still that, but it's mostly guarded, smug racismand while it wouldn't be shocking if the movie were just a wall of n-words thrown at him, I can't say I'm unhappy it's more nuanced than that.  But by the same token, I'd honestly like to ask Dillard if it specifically sucked that Brown was part of VF-32, which in 1949-1950 had the tail code "K"so that the Bearcats on the tarmac are a line of K-K-Ks continuing right on into the vanishing pointand if he just decided to not sweat these tail codes being such a terribly overbearing visual signpost in a film where he's already recently and rather gaudily instructed you to pay attention to letters on the screen by, inter alia, throwing the first "O" in "DEVOTION" over the propeller of a plane.  If intentional, that's not bad, though I'm not sure how I feel about it (it's an awfully aggressive baseline to set in a movie that is hardly, as a rule, aggressive).  I'm not certain if I should feel anything about it at all, because I can't even really determine if it's intentionalor literally just the cigar-is-a-cigar result of a historical coincidence and the default style one would obviously do glamor shots of mid-century planes in.

Hard to say: it does at least fit with Majors's big scene, where he girds his loins by subjecting himself to racial abuse in the pilots' locker room, in a direct address mirror shot (that is technically quite fine, though I've seen people be impressed by it, like it's not A.D. 2022).  It's a hell of a little scene for Majors anywayMajors is always good here, and this actor's reel moment could convince you he's greatbut either way in this scene he's doing some truly remarkable things with his face, crinkling it, like his face is a literal mask that's falling off his skull (the physical exertions alone approach body horror), for the purpose of exorcising his own rage and inoculating himself to a hostile world.  It's a scene I've seen cited positively several times so I feel like I must be actually wrong about it, and am in no position to double-check, but: at the beginning of this scene I would testify under oath that we see Tom enter a bathroom stall, so he's there the whole time taking a shit (presumably) while a black guy's throwing racial epithets at himself, and yet Dillard or his editor Billy Fox felt no need to actually check up on Tom at the end of this scene, although you'd think that Tom now being aware of the depths of Jesse's pain would be important to something something character relationships.  It was such a shocking fuck-up I really must be mistakenI'm fully prepared to apologize if sobut I swear I saw it.

Dillard's prosecution of the rest of it is just, well, J.D. Dillard, who is competent at what he desires to do with a digital film image, in a way that certainly isn't unique to him in his upcoming class of filmmakers, but Christ, I hate it, and David Fincher has much to answer for; as with his debut film, Sleight (I have not seen his sophomore feature, Sweetheart), Dillard embraces that Netflix-meets-Fincher aesthetic wholeheartedly, this time even suborning actual Fincher-Netflix DP Erik Messerschmidt for the purpose, and accordingly removes all light from the world.  Okay: a lot of Devotion is, obviously, daylight exterior second unit photography, and this is mostly fine in that way I say "fine" while grinding my teeth (the Leyte spends a lot of the middle of the film in the Mediterranean, which as we all know is famous for its steel-gray waters and slate-gray skies).  For night, or interior scenes in the bowels of a ship, Dillard is very invested in onscreen light and in a number of cases this provides some very strong images of ghostly pilots on the deck of a carrier, or tense, melancholy scenes as Jesse and Tom's relationship frays (for the two or three minutes it does, anyway), and these have almost no impact at all because of every other Goddamn scene of needless obscurity, though at least this peaks early when we find Daisy painting her house at night by way of the illumination of an overturned lamp, or, hilariously, a kitchen scene that indicates racism was so brutal in 1949 that even a naval officer could not afford overhead lighting, only a dim fluorescent tube over the counter in the background that still looks like it's been shot through a fucking filter.

This is annoying, but the air combat part is what ultimately does it in, and the fact that I have gone ad nauseam about drama and cinematography in this freaking aviation film should indicate where it places on that scale.  I appreciate, and want to highlight, the use of real aircraft in this film: when it looks great it looks great.  There are some genuinely beautiful sights of Bearcats and Corsairs soaring through the sky.  The combat is never great, however: Devotion operates at a pronounced disadvantage right from the start because VF-32 despite its appellation was, in Korea, a predominantly close air support unit, which means theoretically the air combat part was to be handled by the F9F Panther jets.  It bears mentioning that this film's VF-32 is a truly intimate affair and the smallness of the unit and lack of coordination with larger-scale formations might be where "using real aircraft" backfires.  (They of course don't use real flak, but I'm not sure Dillard explained to the VFX team what flak is, which is to say, not solely "black puffs of smoke that can completely but harmlessly engulf an aircraft.")

It backfires extremely hard with what feels like a purely notesed-in (and, to the best of my knowledge, completely counterfactual) confrontation with a MiG-15; Dillard duly managed to get ahold of one of the last remaining working examples of the MiG-15 in the world and filmed a few shots with it.  A very, very few: what presents itself as an impossible battlewhat would be, to a collection of F4U Corsair pilots in 1950, a terrifying confrontation with a monster from the commie futureis executed with the deepest lack of enthusiasm I think it's possible for such an asymmetric match-up to have been afforded.  It's so astonishingly unexciting that the grognard bullshit doesn't even matter; it's in part astonishingly unexciting because the grognard bullshit is so completely ignored, but nobody even cares that they won, which even if it was possible only because the dumbest pilot in the VVS parked his gleaming silver ass behind a Corsair until the Corsair's friends blew it up, still seems like it'd be a pretty heady achievement.  There isn't much combat of any stripe in this combat filmso if you're already inventing complete fictions, can you invent harder?but the real facts of Brown's crash are dutifully replicated, though I'm afraid if you're here for spectacle, you might find them a little underwhelming.  As that seems like a deeply shitty thing to say about a real person's demise, let's be clear that this is only a problem in context, and in truth Devotion does not set a single foot wrong throughout its final 25 or so minutes.  But that brings us back to the thesis: it's not a movie that does things wrong, it just doesn't have much to do.  And all day to do it, but, yeah, that's moviemaking in the 21st century, isn't it?  The Actual 1950 version of this is 100 minutes tops.

Score: 5/10

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