When many people refer to a movie as “old fashioned”, they are not giving it a compliment. I on the other hand find it to be one of the best recommendations for a film, if the subject matter calls for it. “Devotion” calls for a traditional telling, set as it is during the Korean war and telling a story about a time when racial equity was a long way from being realized. This is not really a movie about racial justice, but it does have that as an important component of the story, along with the real story about aviation and war. There is also a love of aviation that seems to fuel a lot of military films, see: Top Gun and Top Gun Maverick. Coincidentally, the second lead in this film was in “Maverick” and played John Glenn in “Hidden Figures“.
The lead in this film is Johnathan Majors, playing Jesse Brown, a aviator with a strong will to fly, who must overcome the self doubt promoted by the racists he has encountered his whole life. The men who flew planes between WWII and Korea, seem to be struggling with ennui, but not Brown. He makes his routine flights into adventures in technique, but he has over relied on his own vision to become the flying expert he has turned into. When he has to adapt to a new fighter, with a bigger engine and restricted eyelines, it becomes a problem for him. As he struggles to adapt, he must also learn to adapt to a friendship with a fellow pilot who doesn’t fit into the experiences he has had. While he is respected by the other pilots in his squadron, he is not close to any of them, and others outside of the squad are derisive of his race and skills. Enter Glenn Powell as Tom Hudner, an Academy graduate who missed the war by a couple of months and longs to prove himself in battle. The relationship between these two real life heroes is the basis of the film.
The opening segments of the film really focus on the thrill of flight and the love of aviators for their craft. The planes and stunts seem very realistic. It was hard to tell where the practical and CGI meet. In the later battles, representing combat during the Korean conflict, it seems intuitive that the work is mostly special effects but it still looks really convincing on screen in most sequences. When the two pilots have conflict with one another, it is based on the chain of command structure that would probably go worse for Brown than anyone else, because he is the first black Naval Aviator. When Hudner acts to try and protect him in combat, it feels like an act of redemption from the earlier event, but still seems like the kind of thing a hero would do. Both men take actions that are admirable but also problematic, but we can see why they are justified in the context of the story.
The domestic story wit Brown’s stateside wife, fretting over his duties is underplayed effectively, especially in the performance of Christina Jackson. She and Majors have a real chemistry that works in convincing us of their love and the title of the movie “Devotion”. There is an amusing interlude played out in Cannes, France, where it seems that race based discrimination is not unique to America. The most entertaining element of this section is the insertion of movie star Elizabeth Taylor as a character in the story. I have no idea if this event actually took place, it feels like a movie plot invention, but it was particularly satisfying as it played out.
So we have a well told war story, with real American heroes, told against an emotional backdrop that seems believable. The social issues are in a respectful place but they are not the main point of the film. The three lead performances are also quite good, as are several of the supporting characters. The combat sequences look terrific, and everything is paced well. I can proudly say this will be on my list of favorite films at the end of the year because it moved and educated me in the way a film should.