Directed by J.D. Dillard.
Starring Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Christina Jackson, Thomas Sadoski, Joe Jonas, Joseph Cross, Daren Kagasoff, Serinda Swan, Nick Hargrove, Boone Platt, Matt Riedy, Logan Macrae, Spencer Neville, Dean Denton, and Adetinpo Thomas.
A pair of U.S. Navy fighter pilots risk their lives during the Korean War and become some of the Navy’s most celebrated wingmen.
Early in director J.D. Dillard’s Devotion (written by Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart, based on the book by Adam Makos), exemplary Navy aviator Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors, nuanced and fighting every bit of humanity in an otherwise conventional action blockbuster centered on a historical figure) prepares to land a new model aircraft onto a carrier. Part of that preparation involves staring into a mirror and repeatedly insulting himself, psyching himself for his objective. It’s immediately evident that they are all insults hurled his way by racists who don’t believe he belongs throughout his training and time served.
This kind of scene could come across as over-the-top and silly, but in execution, it is intensely hypnotic and rousing; Jonathan Majors contorts his face in seemingly impossible ways, with a gaze so focused and sharp, one presumes the mirror might shatter.
As a result, the ensuing perilous test run is exhilarating (and breathtakingly shot with clarity by Erik Messerschmidt and a pulse-pounding score from Chanda Dancy, which goes for all of the major action beats). There are repeated cockpit shots of Jesse Brown, still stern and concentrated, using that verbal pain to prove his naysayers and doubters wrong. It’s a refreshing approach to explore racism on screen and through the lens of universal emotion, considering it’s not hard to imagine many people in life being put down and pushed away. Sometimes the best way to light a fire is to use those words and damage inflicted as a match.
That’s not to say everyone in Devotion is a raging racist. Set during the Korean War, there are still plenty of racial barriers and obstacles for Jesse Brown to overcome (he was the first Black Navy pilot, after all), but he does find mutual respect and friendship in Lieutenant Tom Hudner (Glenn Powell, who already knows a thing or two about cinematic dogfighting as recently seen in box office juggernaut Top Gun: Maverick), who is first and foremost concerned with duty and his orders to bring everyone home alive. Granted, some of these conversations are safe and obvious (Jesse points out that if he were a stickler for the rules like Tom, he would have never made it to where he is today). Devotion is well-intentioned and benefits from the direction of a Black filmmaker, wise enough to stick to Jesse’s perspective whenever a complex discussion arises.
Surprisingly, one of Devotion‘s strongest segments has nothing to do with aerial or ground combat (of which there is plenty here, although it sometimes feels lacking in excitement). During some downtime, the pilots visit Cannes, where Jesse runs into Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) on the beach, winding up invited to a gambling party. What ensues is a unique social setting for a film in the genre, where Jesse faces some initial racial grief at the door (the two men posted outside don’t believe Elizabeth Taylor encouraged his presence) and then some more barbs inside, culminating with Tom leaping to Jesse’s defense with violence.
That’s not what Jesse wants. “Just to be my wingman,” he says.
Inevitably, these men are placed in danger, with Devotion tapping into the horrors of war with cinematic bombast. Bullets fly, explosions are everywhere, and fighter pilots go down (often crashing against snowy landscapes, making for a visual treat) with expertly crafted sound design (director J.D. Dillard’s father was an aviator, so accounting for that and the care that has gone into portraying the aircraft, it’s safe to say everything feels mostly authentic).
Naturally, Jesse is also devoted to his wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) and their child, which, while leading to emotional impact, also feels routine, Beyond Daisy, the supporting cast consists of interchangeable faces that exist to belittle and confront Jesse, which is fine and appropriate but lacks the depth and character that the leads bring to their roles. This also means that some action sequences are missing a sense of urgency and risk unless the film focuses on Jesse and Tom. Thankfully, the filmmakers realize this and stick the landing.
Devotion thrills with a measured look at prejudices of the times, utilizing standard historical storytelling mixed in with crowd-pleasing fanfare, emerging as emotionally moving whether you are or aren’t familiar with Jesse Brown. Jonathan Majors continues to command the screen, further solidifying himself as a must-see talent on the verge of superstardom.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]