Performance can be a powerful thing. While a film based around true heroism is not uncommon, finding ways to cinematically depict the strength of someone’s character is not always something that comes naturally without feeling overly sentimental or even trite. Devotion focuses on a true story of friendship between naval officers during the early days of the Korean War. One being Black in an era where segregation and bigoted attitudes were still commonplace in America means working harder in the face of multiple forms of adversity. This film understands how to incorporate those hardships into a character-focused story that meshes well with the war film on display, complete with aerial battles to spark excitement. Still, at the end of it all, it comes down to seeing what made these celebrated wingmen notable in America’s “forgotten war.”
The spotlights Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Lieutenant Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), who met at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. The year is 1949, and the shaky peace following WWII is on the verge of being upset. Hudner is not a man who judges one based on their skin color, even if he may not entirely understand the blindspots he may. However, that’s not enough to have Brown initially embrace him. The Ensign is introduced hurling racial insults at himself, thinking no one is around. The reason becomes apparent over time, but we know this isn’t a man who’s become an ace pilot over the years with ease. Of course, once Brown is able to fly with Hudner, let alone observe him in other moments, they form a fitting bond.
Director J.D. Dillard (Sleight, Sweetheart) makes a lot of smart choices here. The basics of this plot find the film functioning as an old-fashioned war movie, but it goes deeper, given who these characters are, along with some modern sensibilities regarding the best ways to utilize special effects. This is especially important, as the delays in the release of Top Gun: Maverick means many can’t help but match up the Tom Cruise blockbuster to Devotion. While the two films share a key actor and involve fighter pilots, it’s ultimately a shallow comparison.
While it’s one of the better examples of pure Summer escapism in recent years, Maverick is about the spectacle and what one star can do to make a difference. Devotion is a period film focusing on people who actually existed and what it means to have shown true valor. This is accomplished through aerial missions, sure, but that’s not the movie’s focus. It’s not attempting to compete with a huge studio film that can get actual fight jets captured on IMAX cameras (although this shouldn’t put down the efforts to deliver compelling flight sequences thanks to DP Erik Messerschmidt and the visual effects team). Instead, the film concentrates on its important friendship and Brown’s experiences.
Powell, who also serves as executive producer, is quite good here as Hudner, though he’s widely on hand as support. The film belongs to Majors, who easily elevates the film far past what lesser performers and filmmakers would deliver. There’s a quiet confidence in him as far as how he presents himself to others, regardless of how accepting they are of a Black officer. That said, Devotion allows us to see him at his most vulnerable. When he eventually lets Hudner and the audience in, whether or not the extent of his treatment is eye-opening to some, it’s still upsetting to hear what he was put through. And yet, Brown still became a pilot, one of the best in the sky, given what we see and how he’s regarded. But the film doesn’t stop there.
Brown’s race is not just a factor that comes up sometimes, yet the film does not suffer by making it a significant part of the conversation. Devotion isn’t relying on hokey messaging to give people the feels. Even as a stylized biographical war film, the attempt is made to derive interest from how a man like this functions at a time when he’s not accepted by all. This extends to portions set outside of time spent on base or aboard an aircraft carrier. We watch Brown interact with his wife (an effective Christina Jackson) and young daughter. There’s even a brief shore leave allowing Brown and the others to explore Cannes, France. This leads to an entertaining detour for the film, but similar stakes are still at play, given who these characters are.
Dillard’s point is to show what life was for Brown, a man in his early 20s who wanted to be able to fly and serve his country. And as much as Brown wanted to be recognized for his abilities, as opposed to being singled out for other reasons, it brings a dynamic to this film that is well worth exploring. Does that leave the outcome of certain scenes somewhat predictable anyway? I suppose, but what does it matter when there’s a proper amount of authority to witness in front of and behind the camera?
Making a movie like this means embracing certain traditions. This is a slower-paced war movie than some may expect when it comes to a film about fighter pilots, but it’s because it can afford to be. Devotion takes time to get to its excitement as it wants to show what a certain level of nobility can afford genuinely good characters. Everything that comes with that is added benefit, from the solid supporting work by Thomas Sadoski as the officers’ Lieutenant Commander to the moments of unique directorial experimentation, such as a couple of long takes focusing on the emotion in Majors’ face and an action sequence involving Powell, late in the film.
Devotion is honorable, of course, as that’s the least a film like this could do in celebrating real-life heroes. It’s also very well acted and uniquely made by the type of director that doesn’t always receive this sort of opportunity (it should be noted that Dillard is a Black Naval brat). Being a period war film may not allow Devotion to rely on the pure spectacle of entirely real aerial stunts, but it doesn’t have to. This is a film evaluating and celebrating the heroics of those treated differently yet didn’t worry about taking pride in their actions. They were more focused on giving in to what they were best at, which still managed to go down in history.