Devotion will hit theaters on November 23, 2022.
War dramas based on true stories are often the simplest and most accessible way to present your story and heroes to an audience. Telling those stories, however, can get tricky when that hero is a black United States military, as doing justice to his journey inevitably means grappling with challenges beyond those inherent in wartime. And those obstacles often represent pieces of US history that many prefer to ignore, even if doing so erases the contributions of talented and courageous people. But when done right, it’s the kind of story that can be a transformative experience. Director JD Dillard’s Devotion, which centers on Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first black pilot to earn his wings in the US Navy’s basic flight training program, is exactly that kind of film. It focuses on Brown’s unlikely friendship with fellow Marine aviator Lt. Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) in the early days of a war that tested both their training and their personal relationship. For many viewers, the Top Gun duology shapes how we relate to the stories of fighter pilots. This true story of elite aviators offers a unique opportunity to replace that colorful fiction with gripping reality. After all, not all heroes wear capes; some flew Vought F4U-4 Corsairs in North Korean airspace to save lives.
Based on the book of the same name, Devotion opens with Hudner, the newest member of the VF-32 squadron, arriving at the base. He enters the team locker room just in time to catch Brown’s tail yelling viciously to himself in the adjacent restroom area. It’s a startling if seemingly bizarre introduction to the man, setting the stage for Majors’ deeply affecting performance as he embodies Brown’s vulnerabilities and unsettling coping mechanisms. Rather than following Brown as he works to qualify as a fighter pilot, the story falls into events just prior to the attack that sparks war between North and South Korea. It’s a smart decision that gives way to a story in time of warfare centered on the bonds between men.
Shortly after meeting Brown, the other team members appear. They’re a jovial bunch ready to give Hudner a warm welcome, so on the surface, it’s Brown’s reserved demeanor that’s most notable, not the fact that he’s the only member of the black squadron. He is facing the Why behind its coldness that kicks you in the stomach. Dillard aptly incorporates the standard elements of a wartime film, using his ensemble for its dry wit and unspoken commitment to one another to counterbalance the heaviness of impending danger. Devotion doesn’t lack action, but the characters aren’t just a vehicle to tell the anxious intensity and epicness of the battle.
Dillard rightly keeps the lens on Majors as he navigates precarious circumstances as the only black pilot in the Navy. With restrained power, Majors masterfully conveys that Brown is not easily trusted. Though confident in his abilities, he openly tests the mettle of his teammates. He rejects any attempt to “defend” him when others disrespect or threaten him. Brown neither wants nor needs a savior, but he would welcome a friend he can trust to have his back. Self Top Gun: nonconformist offered a welcome reminder of what you love about aviation movies, so Dillard’s Korean War film marries those propulsive aerial sequences and cockpit point of view to a gripping true story that’s sure to change the way you think to a pilot and his wingman. Thankfully, the script balances its character study with sharp action and thoughtful story progression on and off the air.
Glen Powell’s Tom Hudner, meanwhile, isn’t a proxy for audiences to “discover” the realities of racism. It is 1950. While the loss of life may have forced the US military away from the open segregation and disenfranchisement of black service members, that does not mean their presence was readily accepted. Anti-Blackness and prejudice are everyday facts of life, and Powell portrays Hudner with a steadfastness and convincing naïveté of the privileged. Finding out what motivated him to join the Navy carves out his role in the team with recognizable clarity. This is his story as much as Brown’s because Hudner’s inability to understand why his teammate is hesitant to place his trust in him adds valuable perspective as their relationship progresses. Breaking down barriers and changing perspectives was (and still is) an inevitable byproduct of Black people striving to live full lives under oppressive circumstances. It can become a cage of his own. With that in mind, Devotion doesn’t just chronicle the relationship between Brown and his white wingman Hudner.
It’s clear that Hudner and Brown are both excellent drivers. So, watching the squadron’s first milestone – qualifying for carrier landings – is all the more compelling when it becomes clear that something other than the skill and mastery of his aircraft continues to hamper Brown’s performance. And when you finally learn what’s tripping him up, you, like Hudner, won’t be able to wriggle out of the stark truth that is the Black experience in a world designed to exclude Black people.
Dillard’s story direction constantly overlaps with antagonistic encounters to highlight the prejudice Brown constantly faces. An anonymous noise report that leads the police to his family’s door. To be forced to pose for photos and be expected to parrot PR-ready quotes about his rush to reporters. Swallowing a marine’s racist disrespect on a ship. Each incident establishes the reasons for Brown’s trust issues. Dillard blatantly rejects the laziness of relying on physical violence to expose the harm that can come to Brown as a result of racism. The impact is all the greater as Dillard is careful to work in moments of respect, joy, and camaraderie to provide balance. This isn’t a story meant to paint everyone as a seething racist, just as it isn’t dismissing the fact that Brown is successful despite a racist system working as intended. Hudner and the other squadron members do not actively alienate Brown. They simply fail to consider the impact that something seemingly insignificant to them would likely be devastating to Brown. It’s risky to choose subtly and normality over the more sensationalist version of discrimination. The pervasiveness and banality of anti-Blackness makes people uncomfortable. By eschewing the intended more physically violent angle to make room for the work this squadron does to grow as a unit, it gives the story its true impact. Because this is, again, as much Hudner’s story as it is Brown’s.
The first half of the film reveals Brown’s love of flying and family. Unlike his single compatriots, he is a devoted husband and father. His wife, Daisy (brought to life with delightful warmth and humor by Christina Jackson), is both his anchor and safe haven. Powell’s confident and charismatic Hudner serves as the perfect contrast to Majors’ stoic intensity and restrained vulnerability. Hudner thwarted the family’s expectations of joining the military. He is a true believer, committed to service. Each rider finds common ground even if he struggles to see face to face. Dillard’s direction errs in “showing” rather than “telling,” reinforcing the unsaid with strategic conversations between characters at crucial moments over heavy data dumps. The end result is a film that delivers its lessons on friendship and microaggressions without falling out of his narrative pocket.
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When the combat portion of Devotion begins, it’s impossible not to get fully involved in this team. The aerial sequences, for all their spectacularity, carry more than a hint of genuine authenticity. Even through the action choreography, each member of this small ensemble performs to make the whole greater than the parts of her. Then, when the third act takes a grim turn, the macro elements of war and enemy involvement ring true. There aren’t many modern stories built around the Korean War; even fewer that put racial dynamics front and center from a person of color’s perspective. It may seem counterintuitive, but the refusal to shy away from the subject actually makes room for the story of a friendship between two men of different races without it turning into a superficial savior narrative that does its subjects a disservice. Devotion is a story about friendship, commitment and the kind of honest connection that leaves no one behind. It’s chock full of heartbreaking twists, exciting action, and the kind of hope that never goes out of style.