PLOT: During the Korean War, Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), one of the first black Naval aviators, and his wingman, Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), become close friends, with a deadly mission eventually proving their unfailing devotion to each other.
REVIEW: In the middle of so many art films here at TIFF, it’s still refreshing to know that a well-crafted, mainstream, big-studio potential blockbuster can still find its way in. Sporting a huge up-and-coming star in Glen Powell, Devotion is exceedingly well-timed, with him having just played another Naval aviator to massive success in Top Gun: Maverick. Pairing him with Jonathan Majors, who’s about to become the big new bad guy in the next batch of Marvel movies, may prove to be a savvy move for Sony, with this likely to appeal to the same audience that liked Maverick so much. This is another unfussy crowdpleaser and, like Maverick, tells a stirring story of camaraderie under fire. Heck, this one even has the benefit of being true. Some may snicker at its simplicity, but it more than gets the job done as far as pure entertainment goes.
Director J.D. Dillard, who directed the indies Sleight and Sweetheart, proves himself more than up to making a blockbuster, and one with a lot of heart to boot. The movie wouldn’t work if you didn’t buy into the friendship between the two leads, and the Majors/Powell pairing proves to be a strong one. Majors’ Brown is the first black aviator to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program. His journey to “the big show,” as they call it, has been fraught, leaving him guarded. When the other men are off partying, he’s at home with his wife (Christina Jackson) and daughter. None of the men gets to meet his family. Still, Hudner, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and already a Lieutenant, earns a rare invite, with the two earning each other’s respect early on. Their bond grows once they’re sent into combat, but the “bromance” is more based on mutual respect and admiration than pure sentiment.
When I interviewed Powell a few months back, I learned he was a real certified pilot. Devotion has a similar verisimilitude to Top Gun: Maverick in that they try to give you an idea of what being a Naval Aviator might be like. The guys are shown doing fancy maneuvers on their Bearcats, but once they switch over to Corsairs, the flying becomes much less flashy, as they’re all just learning the basics. A big part of the plot revolves around whether or not they’ll be able to land the planes on Naval carriers, which is a surprisingly unsexy but realistic plot point.
The film gets a little uneven in the midsection, with a lengthy part of the movie revolving around the aviators going on shore leave and meeting Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) in Cannes. It stretches out the running time a little too much as it covers territory already covered in other places in the film, such as Hudner’s anger at Brown for not standing up for himself to racist bullies. Perhaps the best part of the movie that drives the message home revolves around a gentle reprimand Hudner gives Brown in a flight report that significantly derails the latter’s career. As he explains, a black mark may mean very little to a white aviator, but it’s a career killer to the first black aviator.
Indeed, the film digs into the hard-won battles Brown had to fight to advance his career, showing what an inspiration he was to other black soldiers. But, for the most part, the core members of his flight team, including Joe Jonas as a fellow pilot and Thomas Sadoski as their C.O, are shown to be supportive.
In many ways, Devotion is reminiscent of the war films we got from that brief post-Saving Private Ryan cycle in the 2000s. It covers a conflict rarely depicted in American cinema – the Korean War. Perhaps this is because China and the U.S were on opposite sides, and up to now, Hollywood’s been playing it a little safe in that regard (the opposite can be said about China, with tentpoles like the recent Battle at Lake Changjin. A few years ago, it’s doubtful this movie about the so-called “Forgotten War” would have been made.
While it’s conventional in a somewhat old-fashioned way, Devotion is ultimately a very moving depiction of the bonds between soldiers, which persist long after the war they’ve fought in has ended. Glen Powell and Jonathan Majors are both exceptional, and J.D. Dillard has done an excellent job making a suitably epic war flick that should earn a lot of respect from the same audience that made Top Gun: Maverick a hit.