Synopsis – A pair of U.S. Navy fighter pilots risk their lives during the Korean War and become some of the Navy’s most celebrated wingmen.
My Take – Despite their over familiarity, war dramas continue to be celebrated across the globe mainly as true stories of heroism are often considered the easiest and most accessible way to introduce the audiences to history. And whilst this latest entry into the genre is set during the Korean War, often termed as the forgotten one, it is actually surprising less about the conflict, but instead more about the relatively unknown true story of a war hero called Jessie Brown, the first African-American naval officer.
As the first African-American aviator to complete the Navy’s flight training program, Brown not only navigated the cultural prejudice around him, but also inspired countless others to follow in his footsteps. His death during the Korean War also made him the first African-American Navy officer to lose his life during that conflict.
Adapted by writers Jake Crane and Jonathan A.H. Stewart from the book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice by Adam Makos, director J.D. Dillard‘s third directorial (following Sleight and Sweetheart) admirably tries to tell the story of a heroic man, trying to place him within a recognizable historical and social context. However, in its attempts to show heroism and fortitude, it also misses the complexity and emotions required to soar the film high.
While it offers some great visuals, a solid turn from Jonathan Majors in the lead, and the necessary fly boy swagger, but it’s still not enough to save the overall production of this sturdy yet unexceptional dad-bait. Sure, the biopic makes up for some of its shortcomings in the second half as the story becomes more focused and considerably more compelling, yet upon stripping away its scope all we are left behind is a hollow shell of bland, beaten-down war film hamstrung by its straightforward material.
Honestly, this story might have done better as a mini-series to help give Brown‘s story more time to shine and explore his camaraderie of the group, especially with Tom Hudner, played by the ever charming Glen Powell, who also co-produced the film.
Set five years after the end of World War II, the story follows Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first Black pilot to earn his wings in the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program, being 1950, his presence hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed. Struggling to be away from his wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), and their young daughter, Brown constantly finds himself brushing off both pointed and casually racist remarks from his fellow officers.
Eventually finding comfort in his growing friendship with Lieutenant Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), a straight-arrow new recruit, as the two find themselves learning to tame the Vought F4U Corsair air crafts, which has earned an ominous nickname, Widow Maker, due in part to its long nose, which obscures visibility, and has a tendency to bounce uncontrollably on landing. And as the Korean War breaks, both their training and personal relationship are put to the test.
There are moments of odd and memorable interest here, like a detour the film takes on shore leave in Paris where someone unexpected pops up, but most of it is just a straightforward war picture with cookie-cutter side characters and straightforward World War II melodrama. The film’s first half is tediously paced and includes considerable extraneous material, with a narrative that’s rather episodic in nature. The characters and the picture’s principal themes including Brown’s struggle to fit in to a newly integrated military also feel somewhat underdeveloped, leaving some of the potentially strongest elements of this story on the table.
The film wants to be more of an intimate study on Brown as a husband, a friend, an aviator, and a human. As a black aviator in the 1940s, he has endured an unfathomable amount of racism, so much that it fills a book he keeps with him, where he writes down every horrifying thing white people have ever said to his face. And he refers to it whenever he needs his anger to fuel him.
While he’s gotten good at turning the other cheek as demanded by a white-dominated society, he can’t deny the accumulated pain in his more intimate moments. And, despite an apparent intention to make up for oversights, the picture never really picks up on that idea to any great degree, treating the war as more of a backdrop than anything else.
Though Majors is able to show Brown’s inner turmoil, his friendship with Tom never really works. Their scenes together never hint at the bond that the film tries to make its central premise. There’s an air of politeness that governs this relationship. In their attempt to present a wholesome friendship, the writers end up showing one that doesn’t connect.
The difference in their races hangs over every scene they share, though the issue isn’t any bigotry on Tom’s part, who is all too insistent about sticking up for a perfectly capable adult who wants nothing more than to be treated like anyone else. Even when they drum up a conflict that might bring some fireworks, they quickly resolve it and Brown and Tom are quickly back to being polite and reserved with each other. Thankfully, the film kicks into high gear in the second half.
Though made well before Top Gun: Maverick (2022) came out, it’s hard not to be reminded of that film. The film is slow to get to the aerial fights and the war, spending too much time on the buildup and training. You expect a film sold as a war epic to have epic battles or at least exciting sequences. There the film falters too, with a few mildly entertaining but unmemorable scenes.
Performance wise, Jonathan Majors is phenomenal and gets to show off his range in the private baring of his weariness, as in his ritualistic repeating of past invective hurled at him or the recounting of a swim test stacked against him that he nonetheless passed. In comparison, Glen Powell struggles to keep up. A charming presence in his own right, immediately likable with a strong, understated aura, the actor gets much more screen time than he did in Top Gun: Maverick (2022) but with the same, mild amount of character development.
In supporting roles, Christina Jackson, Thomas Sadoski, Joe Jonas, Nick Hargrove, Spencer Neville, Daren Kagasoff and Serinda Swan are effective. On the whole, ‘Devotion’ is a tedious war film that struggles in presentation despite an excellent Jonathan Majors’ performance.
Directed – J.D. Dillard
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 139 minutes