"Devotion" Review: Military film celebrates real-life heroes

Inspired by a true story, the new drama Devotion focuses in two heroic pilots who became friends during the early 1950s. The film celebrates their military service while also commemorating their friendship, which united the men in the run-up to war. Turmoil in Korea serves as the background of this story but most of the script  focuses on the kindship that developed between the two young men.

Jonathan Majors stars here as Jesse Brown, the Navy's first black pilot, while Glen Powell (who portrayed a fictional aviator in Top Gun: Maverick this summer) plays fellow pilot Tom Hudner. The story opens after World War 2 but before the Korean War. During that time, soldiers were preparing for international conflicts but unsure where it would arise.

Much of the feature occurs before wartime as the aviators spend their time training. It’s during this time that Brown befriends Hudner. Adapted from the book by Adam Makos, the screenplay by Jake Crane and Jonathan layers the friendship in an interesting way showing that while Hudner believes he and Brown are equal in the eyes of the brass, Brown has faced experiences and circumstances that Hudner could never relate to. 

From their unequal experiences in training camps to the uneven consequences that both men would face from not following orders ("A slap on my wrist: It's not the same as a slap on yours," Brown states), the screenplay slowly reveals the reality that Brown faces in the military.

There’s an intimacy here that really focuses in on Brown’s character and brings him to life. His friendship with Hudner is one of the feature’s key highlights but several scenes also depict the relationship between Brown and his wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) and the relationships between Brown and  the predominantly black crew of their Naval vessel. That crew — a group of black men that stands in awe when Brown lands his plane — are struck seeing a black man thrive as a Naval aviator. Brown’s story stood for a lot more for these men and the story recognizes and appreciates the affection they have for him.

Although the drama unfolds as war brews in Korea, this isn't a typical war film. The emphasis here isn’t on the battles or the politics overseas. It’s on the personal relationships, which makes the eventual battle sequences even more compelling. Oftentimes, war movies focus more on the battles than the relationships forged between the officers. This one does the opposite, only bringing the characters into battle late in the film.

Those battle sequences are quite compelling with director J.D. Dillard (who previously helmed an episode of Utopia and one of The Outsider) capturing the aerial assaults with a restraint that keeps the focus on the characters in each of the planes. There are wider shots that show the planes at a distance but Dillard seems to prefer emphasizing all of the characters involved over getting lost in a big aerial battle scene. 

Devotion never feels like a traditional war film. Instead, it feels like a movie about a friendship with the brewing war in Korea in the background. When the men eventually face the war head-on, the personal drama feels all of the more affecting and compelling because the storytellers took the time to build up the characters and their backgrounds in the film’s first act.  

Devotion is in theaters nationwide now.

John Hanlon is a film and television critic. This article was published here with his permission. All rights reserved. 

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