At the beginning DevotionJesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first black aviator in Navy history, tries to cheer himself up before taking to the skies. It’s a pivotal moment in the film and uses a classic cinematic trope: talking to yourself while looking in the mirror. Think Robert De Niro Taxi driver or Matt Damon The talented Mr. Ripley. It’s the kind of cinematic moment that could catapult an actor to stardom. Majors is definitely at that point in his career after he broke out The last black man in San Francisco and proving himself with subsequent roles in From 5 Blood And The harder they fall. Director JD Dillard allows Majors to soar in this scene, clearly showing the actor’s intensity. What is most striking, however, is the context. Brown motivates himself by throwing in the mirror the racial epithets he hears every day. Like this Devotion sets the theme of overcoming adversity by allowing its protagonist a signature moment.
Based on the book by Adam Makos and adapted by Jake Crane and Jonathan AH Stewart, Devotion takes place during the Korean War in the 1950s. It follows Brown as he prepares in Florida and then into combat in Korea. Still, it’s less of a war epic and more of a friendship story that traces Brown’s relationship with fellow pilot, Tom Hudner (Glen Powell). The film’s most pivotal line isn’t a big hooyah statement about speed or defeating the enemy, but rather a simple “Be my wingman.”
At first the friendship is temporary. Brown is the only black fighter pilot in the Navy and thus takes his time trusting Hudner. Some of the other pilots taunt and laugh at him because of his race. Wherever he goes, being “the one” or “the exceptional” weighs heavily on him. Majors excels at presenting this burden, as in a scene where fellow black servicemen show their trust in him and their admiration by gifting Brown a watch. Majors’ face telegraphs a lot of what’s left unsaid about carrying the burden of being chosen to validate the existence of an entire race.
While Majors is able to show Brown’s inner turmoil, there is never a spark with Powell. Their scenes together never hint at the bond the film seeks to create as its central premise. There is an air of kindness that governs this relationship. In their attempt to present a healthy friendship, the writers end up showing one that doesn’t connect. Even when they ignite a conflict that could lead to fireworks, they resolve it quickly, and Majors and Powell quickly get back to being polite and private with each other. When, in the end, they ask for the tears of the audience, it seems like an absurd question because the groundwork hasn’t been laid.
Powell manages to strut and flirt when the squadron stops for a short break in the south of France. That interlude doubles as a fun moment for the audience when Brown meets Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) and she invites them for a night on the town. However, Majors is stuck playing the square as the script deprives him of showing different facets of Brown or his on-screen character.
The film also features a rather simple marriage between Brown and his wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson). It is so well packaged that it borders on hagiographic. They are always absolutely supportive and loving towards each other at all times with no hint of how a real marriage works. The way these two relationships are presented shows the filmmakers’ admirable attempt to pay a respectable tribute to the memory of the Brown and Hudner families. But respectful and polite can never replace exciting or recognizably real.
Devotion it is slow to get to dogfights and warfare, spending too much time preparing and training. You expect a film sold as a war epic to have epic battles or at least thrilling sequences. Even there the film falters, with some unfunny but unmemorable scenes. Chanda Dancy’s score swells to hide what’s not on screen. The script hasn’t singled out any of the fighter pilot characters other than Brown and Hudner, so it becomes hard to invest in their fates. Giving an intriguing metallic blue tint to the night sky, Erik Messerschmidt’s aerial shots evoke other war films, but aren’t distinctive enough to stand out. The plot in that part of the story is so simple that Dillard is unable to wring out any tangible tension, ending in a whimper.
Devotion admirably tries to tell the story of a heroic man, trying to place him within a recognizable historical and social context. However, in his attempts to display heroism and fortitude, he lacks the complexity that must have influenced someone who was able to soar so high.