The heroes of the Korean War, America’s forgotten war, specifically Jesse Brown, who became the first Black aviator in Navy history, have been largely erased from history.
However, Sleight director J.D. Dillard, whose father is the second African American Blue Angels pilot, has always known Brown’s story, which is the subject of Devotion.
Adapted from Adam Makos' book of the same name, 'Devotion' opens in 1950.
We meet a strapping Brown (the always immaculate Jonathan Majors), who has endured every type of abuse and anguish to earn his place as a Navy fighter pilot. Dillard chooses to begin his story once Jesse is already established. Though the audience may not be privy to the navel and aviator lingo that take up much of the film’s beginning, Major is electric on the screen. His world further expands when we enter his quaint Rhode Island home, where his wife Daisy (a magnificent Christina Jackson) is buzzing about with their young daughter, Pam.
A big-budget action film, 'Devotion' hits all of the good beats.
There are crashes and fires, massive war scenes, and gut-wrenching moments. The cinematography, especially in IMAX, is a magnificent experience. Moreover, the bond between Jesse and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, who also served as executive producer), a fellow fighter pilot who has just been assigned to Jesse’s base, unfurls slowly but solidly. During one particularly compelling scene, Tom tries to wrap his mind around the racism and aggression that are constant for Jesse. He is shaken when Jesse tells him to get in the water with him instead of always trying to throw him a life jacket after the fact. It is a sharp examination of the problem of white liberals. Many of them want to talk without sacrificing anything tangible.
Dillard also infused Jesse and Daisy's deep love and romance in the film.
Their love is honest and romantic. The world spirals around them, but it never seeps into their home. Jackson is a compelling actress, an excellent match for Majors, who is allowed to soften in these scenes. The film’s name, “Devotion,” appears to stem from their relationship.
Dillard chooses not to constantly lambast his audience with all of the racism that Jesse endured during his, which is rare in Hollywood period dramas. However, because we meet Jesse just as the Korean War kicks off, many questions about his interest in aviation and even wading through basic training were left unanswered. Moreover, one scene in particular where Jesse is standing in a mirror repeating racial insults to himself would have fallen apart if Majors had not been standing in the role. It’s also an unexplained moment until nearly the movie’s final act.
However, showcasing the genuine friendship between him and Tom and a chance meeting in Cannes where the pair and their crew encounter movie star Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) in their dazzling certified Navy Twill made the film truly enjoyable.
Devotion does not have a happy ending, nor does it shift new ground when it comes to war pieces. However, the acting, specifically that of Majors and Jackson, the intense battle sequences, Majors and Powell’s chemistry, and the emotional moments make it worthwhile.
Devotion premiered Sept. 12, 2022 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will debut in theaters Nov. 23, 2022.