Glen Powell has starred in two movies about Navy pilots this year. It's safe to say he's cornered the market. Top Gun: Maverick and Devotion could otherwise not be more dissimilar, nor could the characters he plays in them. Far from being a fast-paced, action-heavy thrill ride, Devotion is a relatively low-key, thoughtful examination of loyalty and duty, both as a member of the military and as an overall person. The lens through which that idea is filtered is a true story about the first African-American Naval aviator.

Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) is that aviator. He's a cautious, keep-to-himself type, having been conditioned to expect poor treatment. Tom Hudner (Powell) is the new guy in the unit, assigned to be Jesse's wingman. They make an effective pairing. Jesse is determined and stoic, Tom laid-back yet focused. A friendship forms between them, to the delight of Jesse's beloved wife Daisy (Christina Jackson).

Although undeniably skilled in an aircraft, multiple challenges exist. Jesse recognizes that he has to work twice as hard to prove his worth, despite generally-accepting colleagues. Occasionally, he encounters overt racism. He grapples with fear over the unfamiliar plane he's supposed to fly, as it has decreased visibility from the cockpit, making it harder to land on the ship. And then there is the dangerous mission he and Tom get sent on, threatening to take him away from Daisy permanently.

Devotion does not go the usual route in depicting Jesse Brown's glass ceiling-shattering status. For starters, when we meet him, he's already in the Navy, so there are no sequences of him confronting intolerance in attempting to achieve his dream. Rather than big dramatic scenes showing him as a victim of racism, director J.D. Dillard and screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart choose a more matter-of-fact approach, inferring that subtle bigotries are everywhere and that Jesse has, if not become immune to them, at least learned to utilize them as motivation.

One of the movie's best scenes - and a moment that Majors sells powerfully - has Jesse looking into a mirror, saying to himself all the racist comments he's heard since joining the Navy. It's an emotional exercise in amping up his defiance. Seeing the subject portrayed in that fashion keeps the emphasis on the personal toll bigotry takes. In that way and others, the movie comes at the subject without needing to resort to big confrontations like we've seen before in other pictures.

Combat scenes are similarly handled in a subtle manner. The aerial dogfights are thrilling not because they're rapidly edited and bombastic, but because Dillard shoots them for authenticity. When Jesse and Tom dive-bomb a bridge, dodging heavy enemy fire, we see it through the cockpit window, just as the characters would. Another benefit of the restrained approach is that it keeps our attention on the bond between the men -- the single most important aspect of the film.

Jonathan Majors is exceptional as Jesse, exuding quiet strength. Even when facing blatant discrimination, the pilot never loses his cool. Majors gives him the quality of absorbing every negative experience and molding it into something he can use. It's a performance of great dignity. Glen Powell is also superb, conveying how Tom (as he tells Daisy) is still trying to figure out what he's fighting for. Of course, he figures that out over the course of the story, having his life impacted by Jesse just as much as Jesse's life is impacted by him. The two leads make us believe the connection between the friends.

There's an odd section in the middle where the unit goes to Cannes and meets Elizabeth Taylor that feels a little out of sync with everything else. Otherwise, Devotion is an absorbing personal tale of Jesse Brown's contributions to the Navy and the transformative friendship he developed with Tom Hudner. Our military, the movie infers, requires people who can look past the outer differences like skin color to embrace the humanity within. That's a compassionate message in a film guaranteed to leave you moved in the end.

out of four

Devotion is rated PG-13 for strong language, some war action/violence, and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 18 minutes.