Directed by: J.D. Dillard
Premise: Based on true events. Set during the Korean War, United States naval aviators train for battle. A Black aviator (Jonathan Majors) befriends one of his white colleagues and copes with the pressures of being the only non-white pilot.
What Works: Devotion is primarily a men-in-combat story and these narratives are usually about the unique bonds between brothers-in-arms facing mortal danger. A lot of these kinds of films idealize the capacity for people to overcome personal differences and find common ground in service to their country and one another. The filmmakers of Devotion complicate that idea by addressing racism. Devotion is set a few years after the United States military had integrated and tells the story of Jesse Brown, the United States Navy’s first Black aviator. Jonathan Majors is very good in the film. There is a lot happening underneath his performance. Brown comes across cold at first but as he befriends fellow pilot Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) we can see that distance is a matter of self-preservation. Brown understands that the future of other Black pilots rests on his shoulders and responding to racism, even if it’s justified, might have further consequences. Admirably, Devotion does not pretend to solve racism in a two-hour movie. It instead depicts a man doing the best he can within the circumstances. Devotion is handsomely produced especially in its aviation scenes. The filmmakers convey the skill of flight and the aviation sequences are well choreographed. It’s unclear if the movie was done practically or with digital effects and Devotion looks convincingly of its time but shot in the style of a contemporary movie.
What Doesn’t: Devotion suffers from a story that intermittently starts and stops. The movie has long periods in which the tension lags. Part of the problem is the lack of stakes. We know in the abstract what’s riding on Jesse Brown’s flight performance but there isn’t much concrete at stake. There’s little sense that the film is building toward a climax. The story culminates in a mission to blow up a bridge but it’s not clear why that particular bridge needs to be destroyed and what it means if the pilots fail. Brown is well characterized but virtually everyone else is one dimensional. That’s most troubling in regard to Tom Hudner, Brown’s white colleague. It’s made clear that Hudner does not harbor racial prejudice but he has no personality. This is not the fault of actor Glen Powell but rather a script that doesn’t give Hudner any faults or eccentricities. He’s also just a little too virtuous and free of racism and Devotion endorses a simplistic and binary understanding of prejudice.
Bottom Line: Devotion succeeds in being an inspirational story. The movie is a little baggy but the portrait of Navy pilot Jesse Brown is complex and Devotion mixes militaristic thrills with a human story.
Episode: #930 (December 11, 2022)