For his third film as director, J.D. Dillard adapts the 2017 biography Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice by author Adam Makos. The film shortens the title to Devotion and introduces audiences to the comradeship between naval officers Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) during the Korean War.
Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart pen the film’s inspirational script and effortlessly do justice to the inspirational story of the U.S. Navy’s most famous aviation duo. In the movie, we learn Jesse was a Black sharecropper’s son and the Navy’s first Black carrier pilot defending a nation that wouldn’t even serve him a bar. Meanwhile, New England-bred Tom Hudner bypassed a chance to attend Harvard to fly fighters for his country.
Soon, the two become wingmen in the thirty-second Fighter Squadron despite the segregation divide plaguing the country. Eventually, the duo land a dangerous job that worries Jesse’s wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson). The duo finds themselves deployed to a location in the Mediterranean. In between war games in the sun, the young men revel on the Riviera, partying with millionaires and even befriending Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Taylor. And then came the conflict that no one expected: the Korean War.
As my readers know, I am a veteran and third-generation military, so historical war films have always hit me differently. I never knew that much about Navy history since I was in the Air Force and my family all served in the Army. However, similar to the film Men Of Honor, which told the story of Carl Brashear, the first African-American U.S. Navy Diver, I wanted to learn more about an unsung Black hero.
Johnathan Majors commands the screen within the opening minutes of the film. Dillard introduces Major’s take on Brown uniquely. In a scene that borders on heartbreaking, Brown yells vicious, racist insults at himself as he contemplates himself in the mirror. It’s pertinent to understand that Brown is a survivor of violent prejudices within the Navy. Jesse writes every slur that has been hurled at him in a notebook to motivate himself and give him courage.
On the contrary, we meet Tom as he hears the insults and later addresses them. Director J.D. Dillard avoids turning the moment into a white savior trope by having Jesse take the reins. Jesse isn’t blind to racism but knows he still has a job to do. Majors’ star power continues to rise with this performance. Whenever Majors is on screen, he eludes the charisma of the leading men before him. However, Majors never outshines Glen Powell, as the film relies on their chemistry.
Powell has slowly been making a name for himself in supporting roles. However, with this film and a scene-stealing performance in this past summer’s Top Gun: Maverick, Powell should soon find himself in leading man roles. Naturally, I’m sure there will be comparisons to that film as they both deal with aviation.
On the one hand, both films feature thrilling battle scenes. Dillard’s father is a retired Blue Angel and was on the set to authenticate the film. In addition, Dillard enlists the talents of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and the pristine editing of Billy Fox for some gorgeous eye-candy moments. Dillard, who has previously directed smaller films, successfully soars into tentpole fare with Devotion, and I look forward to what he does next.
At its core, Devotion is about friendship and the bond between friends. Naturally, anyone who has served in the military will find a kinship in the term wingman. However, mainstream moviegoers will leave the theater feeling empowered.
Final Grade: B+
Devotion opens in theaters tomorrow November 22nd
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