A downbeat Korean War drama about the friendship between the first Black aviator in Navy history and the Abercrombie model wingman who always had his side, “Devotion” might suffer in the shadow of a mega-spectacle like “Top Gun: Maverick,” but J.D. Dillard’s staid and conventional pilot saga has a few unique advantages that allow it to stay airborne in such competitive skies.
The first and most obvious of those strengths is Jonathan Majors, who infuses Jesse Brown with layers of warmth and nuance that Jake Crane and Jonathan A.H. Stewart’s thin screenplay would never have been able to find on its own. The second is that “Devotion” has an identifiable enemy, whereas both “Top Gun” films made the dramatically agreeable decision to lock their heroes in dogfights with generic bad guys.
But that enemy isn’t just the Chinese ground forces who ultimately present Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner (ultra-likable “Maverick” alum Glen Powell) with their most dangerous threat, nor even the persistent racism that Jesse encounters from his fellow pilots at every stage of his naval career. So far as Dillard’s film is concerned, the real enemy is the pernicious doubt that such racism inspires from its subject; the disbelief that it leads Jesse to have in his own mettle, and the distrust that it engenders him to maintain in the men flying alongside him.
“Devotion” can be stiff and hackneyed at the best of times — it’s nothing if not a war movie that has seen too many other war movies — but it lifts a few inches off the ground whenever it locks in on the loneliness that Brown must have felt as he flew towards an aircraft carrier whose landing signal officer may have wanted him to crash, or soared in formation with people who might have been happy to shoot him down. By rendering the specifics of that particular mindfuck without too much hokum, Dillard’s film is able to trace how Tom earns Jesse’s trust.
It doesn’t happen through big speeches or any sort of “I’m Spartacus!” moments, but rather through the relatively subtle process of a white guy (who doesn’t even know what he’s really fighting for) learning to recognize what his wingman really needs from him. It’s allyship at several hundred miles per hour, and in support of someone who showed more bravery just by getting into a plane than most pilots ever did while flying one. Tom and Jesse never become the best of friends — another wrinkle that helps save “Devotion” from nose-diving straight into “The Blind Side” — but it’s genuinely affecting to see these two men come to discover what it means to count on each other, both during battle and beyond.
It would likely be even more affecting if Majors and Powell were given better-defined characters to play, but such charismatic stars can be like human stereograms up there on the screen, capable of creating rich illusions of depth from even the simplest designs. There might have been a bit more for Majors to work with had “Devotion” focused solely on Jesse’s story, but — for reasons that become especially clear during the film’s closing text — any film made about Brown’s legacy had no choice but to make equal room for Hudner’s as well.
Still, it’s peculiar that we first meet Jesse through Tom’s perspective, when he finds the first Black man he’ll ever fly with shouting epithets at himself in the bathroom mirror. It’s 1950, “the big show” is over, and most of the pilots at the Navy’s Rhode Island base seem convinced that they were born too early or too late for their shot at heroism.
In the meantime, these twentysomething kids have fun zooming above the local beaches in their F8F Bearcats and buzzing over the nearby suburbs, where Jesse lives with his wife (Christina Jackson, mostly called upon to look despondent while reading war letters, but there for the movie when it needs her) and their young daughter in a house next to a “nice” white neighbor who calls the cops on them at any opportunity.
One of the pilots is played by Joe Jonas, who fares better than some other pop stars this fall by making no real impression whatsoever. He’s like the rest of the film’s supporting flyboys in that way — no better or worse. Only Thomas Sadowski, playing the pilots’ commanding officer, gets much of anything to do, the “Newsroom” actor showing up for expository mission briefings with such consistent regularity that it starts to feel like he’s a cut-scene character introducing the next level of a video game. It’s during one such briefing that he tells his men to steel themselves for the Korean War.
Don’t be fooled by the promise of dogfights: “Devotion” is far more of a drama than it is a mid-century action movie. The average scene finds Jesse and Tom standing together in the cramped recesses of an aircraft carrier and discussing the finer points of what “insubordination” really means for someone who the Navy regards as less of a pilot than a promotional opportunity (the more explicit racial overtures are mostly reserved for a clumsy second act sequence in which the pilots wash ashore at Cannes and spend a night carousing with Liz Taylor).
Tom is nothing more than a nice smile with some good intentions behind it, but if Powell is stuck playing a non-role — despite being an executive producer on the project — his classic swagger makes it easy enough to believe the nuances of Tom’s loyalty to his wingman. Jesse can likewise be a few dimensions shy of what this movie could use, but Majors makes a full meal of the scraps on his plate, the actor expressing Brown’s internalized love and pain with the full richness of the real person he’s playing. There isn’t a whiff of didacticism to his character or in the dynamic that he establishes with Tom; these are just two men who are doing their best to look out for each other in all sorts of foreign circumstances.
That only becomes more viscerally evident when the action shifts to Korea. While “Mank” cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt opts for a dark and dingy color palette that makes every interior scene look like it fell out of a Clint Eastwood movie, the aerial sequences are shot with a dizzying splendor worth seeing on the biggest IMAX screen.
The training flights prove most impressive — the violins of Chanda Dancy’s lush but overbearing score so intense that the pilots seem to be dodging them like enemy strafe — but the combat sequences are shot with a clarity and artfulness that extends to their restrained use of CGI, and reflect Dillard’s maturation as a filmmaker. Little about his previous features (the diverting creature feature “Sweetheart” and the less successful “Sleight”) suggested that he had the chops to pull this off, but the clarity of his vision shines through here even when his budget is being stretched to the breaking point. Dillard’s own father was the second Black member of the Navy’s Blue Angels flight demo squad, and the director’s latest movie reflects the earnestness of a son determined to honor that legacy.
And honoring legacies is what “Devotion” does best of all, as the film reaches back into the footnotes of a “forgotten war” to rescue the memories of two men who would do anything and everything in their power to rescue each other. To see how that effort has continued through the generations and onto movie screens is deeply touching, even when the movie itself is not.
“Devotion” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Sony Pictures will release it in theaters on Wednesday, November 23.