We tend to celebrate those who were the first to achieve something without thinking about the sense of isolation that often comes with it. Jesse L. Brown was the first Black aviator to complete the Navy’s flight training program, and paved the way for others to follow, but his path was a lonely one. His skin colour frequently overshadowed his achievements in the eyes of those who frequently told him all the things he was presumably not. In Devotion, director J.D. Dillard proudly puts Brown in the spotlight to give him the laurels he rightfully deserved.
Adapted from Adam Makos’ 2015 book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship and Sacrifice, the film explores Brown’s (Jonathan Majors) time in the Navy and his friendship with his wingman Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, who also serves as an executive producer) during the Korean War. While the two would form a brotherly bond, it took time for Hudner to earn the reclusive Brown’s trust. Living in the 1950s when integration was law, but segregation and overt racism was still the mindset of most people, Brown knew that he had to approach everyday interactions with caution.
While there are a few scenes that spell out the blatant racism that Brown endured, such as being denied service at a casino, Dillard takes a rather fascinating approach to convey the internalized trauma that Black people are often saddled with when dealing with the racism hurdled at them. He simply lets Brown himself vocalize many of the disparaging remarks he has received throughout his life.
A particularly mesmerizing sequence has Brown looking directly at the camera, with the audience serving as his mirror, as he proceeds to hurl the vile comments while trying to keep his composure. Framed as part of his process to prepare for a flight, psyching himself up to prove the doubters wrong, the scene highlights the fragile space where Brown is forced to exist. One where he must always choose diplomacy and grace in every circumstance despite the hate hurled at him.
This is an interesting contrast to Hudner who, blinded by his inherent privilege, instantly feels he needs to be Brown’s protector. Unaware of the fact that his “white saviour” complex might be doing his friend more harm than good.
The chemistry between Majors and Powell helps to bring the complex dynamics of the characters vividly to life. Majors once again shows why he is quickly becoming one of this generation’s most fascinating actors. In presenting Brown as a man who often had to keep his feelings close to the vest, Majors brings a delicate mixture of intensity, vulnerability, and compassion to the role. One cringes along with the character when the Navy attempts to make him the token poster boy for diversity, feels the warmth when he shares a tender moment with his wife Daisy (Christina Jackson), and smiles when his charm gets the attention of actress Elizabeth Taylor (Coroner’s Serinda Swan).
Though the presence of Powell may lead some to compare the film to Top Gun: Maverick, the two film are vastly different in every possible way and the actor gives a far more layered turn here. Oozing with charm, he brings the right balance of confidence and naïveté to make Hudner a complex individual.
Dillard compliments the strong lead performances with wonderful aerial cinematography and the right number of action set pieces. Devotion does not glamourize the war but shows that it can be both mundane and brutal depending on the day. A significant portion of the film is dedicated to the men and the rest to their aviation team attempting to learn how to fly new planes that are bigger and contain different, more terrible lines of sight. Dillard ensures that the dangers of the planes they are flying, and the shifting nature of the Korean War, are top of mind while keeping the social issues that come with being a Black man in America at the forefront.
There are a few moments where the film flies a little too close to conventional trappings. The rest of the aviation team, which includes one character played by Joe Jonas, are not very clearly defined outside of the fact they all happy accept Brown into their fold. The same can be said for Joseph Cross’ Charlie Ward, Brown’s old college buddy, whose inclusion feels like an afterthought. The symbolism is also laid on little thick at times, especially when one particularly annoying character needs saving at the end, but Dillard manages to stick the emotional landing with grace. These quibbles are minor though considering the film navigates themes of isolation, friendship, racism, and heroism with Dillard managing to stick the emotional landing with grace. Always veering slightly off the expected path, Devotion is a film that earns its wings.
Devotion opens in theatres Wednesday, Nov. 23.