Devotion Synopsis: The inspirational true story of Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first Black aviator in U.S. Navy history, and his enduring friendship with fellow fighter pilot Tom Hudner (Glen Powell). Helping to turn the tide in the most brutal battle in the Korean War, their heroic sacrifices ultimately make them the Navy's most celebrated wingmen.
The first black United States Navy aviator, Jesse Brown, receives the Hollywood biopic treatment in Devotion. Like anyone who grew up with a war movie-obsessed dad, I've sat through an endless gamut of war pictures.
The prevalence of these films elicits a fascinating assortment of quality. Revered classics like Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead and Apocalypse Now promote introspective deep dives into soldiers' complex psyche. On the other hand, forgettable romps such as Midway and Pearl Harbor offer little value in their shallow embrace of violence and bombast. The dissident results of these features highlight the high-wire balancing act required to make historical war films resonate with genuine sentiments rather than relaying another vapid series of action scenes.
Devotion teeters that challenging line with inspiring results. Under the guidance of Sleight director J.D. Dillard, Devotion renders
an intelligent and emotionally rousing tribute to overlooked heroes of the Korean war.
Dillard is only a few features into his directorial career, but he possesses the boundless talent of a revered industry veteran. He and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt visualize Brown's story within the grand scale of retro war epics. The duo basks in the high-flying theatrics of soaring aircrafts and immersive backdrops of war-tattered lands with arrestingly cinematic results. In contrast, Dillard and Messerschmidt utilize an intimate touch in their character-driven moments. Their patient camerawork and expressive framing choices effortlessly evoke powerful sentiments without the need for mawkish filmmaking devices.
Dillard's successes are not solely bound to his craft. He also showcases himself as a compassionate storyteller with a deft eye for human dynamics. Devotion registers its best frames when centering its focus on Jesse and his sympathetic peer Tom Hunder. As the first black Navy aviator, Jesse bears the world's weight on his shoulders, carrying years of unrelenting racial torment and intense internal pressures to upend society's expectations of him. Tom enters the Navy as a sympathetic presence to Jesse's plights. However, he soon realizes that his pleasant niceties cannot fully grasp the pressures facing his aviator partner.
Dillard's focus on Jesse and Tom imbues remarkably poignant results. In a genre that often fixates on carnage and despair, Devotion is refreshingly grounded in the personal connection of two acclaimed aviators developing an affectionate bond defined by mutual respect and empathy. Dillard manifests these frames with remarkable precision, never registering a false note from errant score choices or tacky filmmaking devices.
I also love that most of Dillard's aerial scenes forgo traditional combat to showcase the pilot's challenging plane landings. These frames serve as a thoughtful extension of the personal pressures facing both characters as they come face-to-face with their abilities amidst their confined plane cockpits. The intimacy and nuanced sentiments imbued into the landing scenes make them captivating moments that don't require unnecessary gimmicks to be engaging.
Dillard deserves extra praise for elevating a screenplay that endures its fair share of struggles. Screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart collaborate on a serviceable, albeit fairly routine, offering. Devotion features an array of overworked attempts at period-era dialogue exchanges and generic side characters, including a forgettable supporting turn from musician Joe Jonas. These elements can't help but feel like they were shipped in from any other run-of-the-mill war film.
Thankfully, Dillard and Devotion's stirring lead performances always steer the film toward authentic truths. Emerging actor Jonathan Majors boasts the magnetism and gravitas of one of the industry's finest talents. As Jesse Brown, Majors provides a subdued and deeply-affectionate performance. He intimately unearths the undying motivation of a disenfranchised man pursuing his dreams while genuinely reckoning with the years of torment that shadow him throughout his journey. Top Gun: Maverick standout Glen Powell also imbues charisma and aching sensitivity into the role of Tom Hunder. Powell boasts the looks and easy-going appeals of a suave movie star, but it's his adept abilities that expertly dig under the surface of Tom's well-meaning persona. Both actors form a tender, lived-in dynamic that quickly becomes the ever-beating heart of Devotion's core.
While admittedly old-fashioned, Devotion truly takes flight thanks to its well-tempered embrace of character-building over noisy emptiness.
Devotion is now playing in theaters.