DEVOTION is a welcome war movie throwback - with an updated focus
Directed by J.D. Dillard Written by Jake Crane, Jonathan A. Stewart Starring Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Christina Jackson Rated PG-13 Runtime: 2 hours, 13 minutes In theaters November 23
by Ryan Silberstein, Managing Editor, Red Herring
When Hollywood makes war movies, they tend to either be about the European Theater in World War II or the Vietnam War, depending on if it is a nostalgia picture about the heroism of The Greatest Generation or the Baby Boomers who went off to fight in a conflict they didn’t believe in. We get Dunkirk and Da 5 Bloods. There’s a lot of great films in those two categories, but there’s a lot more ground the genre could cover. For one, seeing World War I get its due around its centennial with 1917 and the remake of All Quiet on the Western Front is a welcome move for the genre. Similarly, Devotion is a rare Hollywood production about the Korean War made after the signing of the armistice.
Devotion tells the “inspired by true events” story of Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first Black man to complete the U.S. Navy's basic flight training program, becoming a fighter pilot in the late 1940s. As such, he is also part of the first wave of men who missed fighting in World War II, what the aviators call “The Big Show,” and bemoan that they missed their chance for real glory. Stuck in Rhode Island, the rest of his squadron jokingly lament how women are only impressed by medal winners, and they may never see combat, making them lesser compared to their trainers and officers. Jesse, meanwhile, just wants to continue to prove himself and provide a life for his wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), and daughter Pam. Jesse’s white wingman, Tom Hudner, isn’t sure what he’s in the Navy for, having missed “The Big Show” by graduating from Annapolis a month after V-J Day. When the Korean War breaks out, a mix of excitement and fear spreads among all of them, as Jesse’s squadron is assigned to an aircraft carrier headed toward the Korean Peninsula.
J.D. Dillard, himself the son of a Black aviator, was able to demonstrate his passion for the project through every aspect of production. Above all, the commitment to the use of real aircraft is maybe the most impactful. Devotion has a subtle wistfulness and love for the Corsair and its brethren built into the texture of the film. The changeover from the 1940s to the early 1950s saw the final days of propeller-powered fighter planes signaled by the arrival of jet engine MIGs over Korea. The aerial sequences, supervised by stunt coordinator Kevin LaRosa, who also worked on this year’s Top Gun: Maverick, are not overly showy, but demonstrate the exhilaration of flying a fighter plane. Whether flying over Rhode Island or a bombing raid on some bridges, the sequences are exactly what they need to be, shot in clear fashion and putting the focus on objectives and geography.
But the ultimate strength of Devotion is with its two leads. The movie starts with Jesse and Tom’s first meeting and so much of the direct racism Jesse has experienced happens before this. While we are told and not shown those events, we do see how Jesse is constantly on edge. He is waiting for the white men around him to betray him. Direct confrontation he can handle, but he worries about landing on deck, that one of the men on the ship will sabotage him. While Jesse fits the stoic Black man template of this era of advancement, not unlike Sidney Poitier’s Mr. Tibbs or any number of other characters, he keeps his rage inside him when confronted directly with racist attitudes around him. But J.D. Dillard and the screenwriters also update this to create a fuller picture of the man. Much of Jesse’s home life is included, showing him to be a loving husband and father, a deeply emotional man, and one who is very much aware of his place in history. Just as importantly, we see the anger he carries with him. Written down in a notebook, the slurs and cutting remarks said to him are ready to be called upon to erase his self-doubts with high octave indignation.
Dillard and Majors convey not only Jesse’s fears, but how all people who break these kinds of barriers have to be on constant alert and perform better than those around them. This progression also centers Jesse’s experience. Despite Jesse needing to explain racism to Tom, and tell him that he can fight his own battles, Devotion succeeds at showing the mutual love and respect these two men grow into over the course of their time together. By the time we come to the end of their time as wingmen, that emotional connection is palpable. Majors and Powell have fantastic chemistry together, and are able to show these two men at their highest alert and their most relaxed together. Before arriving in Korea, they have some shore leave in Cannes, where they meet Elizabeth Taylor (Serina Swan). While the night goes a little sideways, this episode does so much to cement their relationship.
Devotion is very much a “dad movie,” but one with a Black lead in a historically white genre is another step forward for representation, as we need diverse movies for all demographics and in all genres. Even better, it stands out with its exceptionally charming leads, sturdy structure, and sincere emotions.