It’s cruel to suggest that the climax of a film is the best portion. Devotion, a Korean War drama “based on a true tale,” is at its most poignant when it demonstrates how close to reality its depiction of the relationship between Navy pilots Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) and Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the Navy’s first Black aviator, actually is.
— Sony Pictures (@SonyPictures) November 17, 2022
Directed by J.D. Dillard and written by Jake Crane, Jon Stewart With Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Christina Jackson, Joe Jonas, Nick Hargrove, Spencer Neville, and Thomas Sadoski. And then the movie is said to be released on Nov. 23, 2022
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Devotion’s PG-13 rating hints that maybe its ultimate objective was to serve as the movie your high school history teacher allows you to see when you have a replacement. Devotion feels like a factory standard drama with a simplified idea of racial reconciliation, similar to numerous movies depicting real-life interracial friendships (Green Book, Remember the Titans, Best of Enemies, take your choice).
A little amount of respect was shown for the real-life people at the film’s heart, which elevates it above other films of the genre. The added layers that Majors, the screenplay, and director J.D. Dillard provide Brown are also well appreciated. Outside of that dedication, though, Devotion is a somewhat average experience.
Hudner, played by Powell, introduces us to the action when he arrives at Quonset Point Air Base in Rhode Island in 1950. Hudner entered the Navy to serve in World War II, but the war ended before he could complete his training. Although Hudner and most of his comrades in the air force are moderately dissatisfied with their mundane military experience, Brown, a gifted pilot whose race puts him at an extra disadvantage, is genuinely unhappy and vents his dissatisfaction via cocky, flyboy antics on the runway.
When the Korean War unexpectedly breaks out, a short mission in the Mediterranean suddenly becomes a prolonged deployment. The rest of the movie follows Hudner, Brown, and the other pilots as they engage in combat, while back at home Brown’s worried wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) frets. The letters between Brown and his wife are a source of solace for Daisy in the film, based on the author’s real-life experiences.
If Devotion had been filmed ten years ago, it would have been a self-righteous historical narrative about tolerance with the rough edges polished out by focusing solely on Hudner’s perspective of Brown’s experience. Thankfully, it is less of a problem here. Devotion doesn’t go into the complexity of a Black man’s experience in the 1950s Navy, but it does have good sense to make this a two-character drama.
Devotion gives Majors Brown, Daisy, and their daughter plenty of screen time, forming an endearing family. Brown’s association with Hudner is far from perfect, notwithstanding Hudner’s views on racial unfairness. Powell portrays Hudner as an upstanding citizen doing the right thing, which his all-American good looks communicate.
Majors embodies Brown’s repressed anxieties and wrath, which emerge at inconvenient moments. Devotion has no other notable traits. Except for Joseph Cross, Thomas Sadoski, and Joe Jonas, the rest of the cast lacks substance. Most highs and lows can be determined blindly. Powell’s entrance in a flight suit reminds us that Devotion isn’t Top Gun: Maverick.
Devotion’s time in aircraft is quick compared to how much time characters spend whining about their F4U-4 Corsairs. Dillard captures the challenge of landing on an aircraft carrier by describing the nervousness of parking a plane on a tiny moving target amid the ocean. By then, we care about Brown and Hudner’s success. They show the narrow margin of error amps up the suspense more than later, more basic air operations.
Devotion respects its characters. Without aesthetics, it’s just a dramatized history lecture. Devotion’s two protagonists are well-used, making the characters’ real-life friendship emotional. Like many previous movies, the eventual conclusion is ethically and dramatically uncomplicated. This is a little better version of familiar storylines, but that’s a low bar for a 2022 film to overcome.