THE STORY – Elite fighter pilots Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner become the U.S. Navy’s most celebrated wingmen during the Korean War.
THE CAST – Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Christina Jackson, Joe Jonas, Thomas Sadoski & Serinda Swan
THE TEAM – J. D. Dillard (Director), Jake Crane & Jonathan A. Stewart (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 138 Minutes
Jesse Brown was the first African-American Naval aviator, a man largely forgotten to history. He saw combat in the Korean War, also known as America’s “forgotten war.” Having a film tell the story of this man in this war is unquestionably a good thing: Brown was a trailblazer with much to teach us about American “exceptionalism,” and there are still many lessons we could learn from the Korean War. But “Devotion,” J.D. Dillard’s new film about Brown with rising stars Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell as Brown and his wingman Tom Hudner, isn’t quite the memorialization this man deserves. It sparks conversation but doesn’t reach the level of quality needed to stand the rest of time.
While it’s being sold as a tense, muscular action film in the wake of the massive success of “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Devotion” isn’t an action film at all. It is instead a wartime biopic that indulges in almost every trope the genre has: A scene or two of flight training, a central mission, a night of shore leave, and tearful, surprising deaths, with some scenes of domestic drama, sprinkled throughout for good measure. The story may be paint-by-numbers, but the dialogue of Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart’s screenplay is strong. The film is centered around Brown and Hudner’s relationship, and while they fall somewhat into the stock types of the rule breaker and rule follower, respectively, what the film does with those types is engaging. Brown does not have the luxury of simply following the rules the way Hudner has by virtue of the color of his skin. As Brown points out, he wouldn’t be an aviator if he had followed the rules. The idea of following rules as a privilege feels new and exciting, and the film comes to life most when it grapples with this idea.
The two men’s opposing perspectives make for an interesting dramatic spine, but because this is a war picture, the actual war has to come into play at some point, and for most of the film, this is the main focus. Unfortunately, these scenes are not nearly as engaging as the scenes of interpersonal drama. Erik Messerschmidt has conjured up some very nice-looking aerial photography, but the action itself feels uninspired. Chanda Fancy’s stirring score helps, but the action sequences feel weirdly safe. They’re coherent and fun to watch but not particularly exciting. Outside of one impressive long take (where the camera travels on the wing of a plane until it lands, at which point it follows as the pilot gets out of the plane), the action scenes in “Devotion” feel like any other war film.
This is the ultimate problem with “Devotion”: It feels no different from countless other historical war films and pales in comparison to many of them. As a character drama, it’s better, especially since Majors and Powell give such strong performances. The two have a fantastic tetchy energy between them that blooms into respect and finally blossoms into a full friendship. Majors brings a fiery passion to the role, constantly aware of the weight on Brown’s shoulders as much as the love he has for being in the air. It’s a complicated relationship Brown must have had with his country, considering how African-Americans were treated by society at large at this time, and Majors captures that in every frame. Powell’s All-American good looks serve him perfectly as golden boy Hudner, but he doesn’t coast on them. He nails the arc of slowly awakening to the new reality of the world around him, shifting his worldview slightly with each new scene with a smile here, a stiffer or looser body there. Early in the film, the pilots talk about how they’re too young for WWII and too old for whatever the next war will be and realize that the world has changed so much just in their lifetimes. The world would change so much more over the course of the rest of the 20th century, but they didn’t know that. They perhaps didn’t even realize they were at an inflection point of history, making history as they flew. The people behind “Devotion” do, though, and create a potent dialogue between the past and present. If only the film had been able to capture the excitement of that moment in addition to the weight of it.