To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, Devotion is a semi-biographical war drama directed by J.D. Dillard (Sleight) from a screenplay written by Jake Crane (The Last Photograph) and Jonathan Stewart (Clean). Featuring Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Christina Jackson, Joe Jonas, Nick Hargrove, Spencer Neville, and Thomas Sadoski, the film is based on the book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice by Adam Makos. The story follows United States Navy officers Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner and the friendship they form during their time as fighter pilots in the Korean War.
In March of 1950, Ensign Jesse L. Brown (Jonathan Majors) admires his F8F Bearcat at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. After checking that everything is okay he returns to the locker room. Lieutenant Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) arrives at the base and looks around to find his locker. After overhearing Jesse muttering in the bathroom Tom introduces himself. Both officers state that they didn’t get a chance to fight in WWII and are eager to serve their country should another war arise. As Jesse leaves, Tom introduces himself to fellow pilots Charlie Ward (Joseph Cross), Bo Lavery (Spencer Neville), Marty Goode (Joe Jonas), Bill Koenig (Daren Kagasoff), and Carol Mohring (Nick Hargrove).
Later, the squadron meets with Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli (Thomas Sadoski) who shows them footage of Russia testing nuclear bombs. He then advises them on how important their training is because the Cold War is heating up and peace may not last for long. Cevoli then assigns Jesse as Tom’s wingman and dismisses the group for training exercises. On the way out the other pilots advise Tom to prepare himself as Brown likes to take detours.
War is a tricky subject to tackle in any film. The story can be framed as a heroic tale of bravery and patriotism or a cautionary tale involving politics and murder. As war is something that has existed for a long time and will probably continue to exist until the Earth is destroyed; Hollywood will continue to capitalize on the subject matter by making dozens of war films. But is this a bad thing? I would say no! In the film, Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli asks Lieutenant Tom Hudner how many wars have there been? When he cannot answer Cevoli tells him that’s the point. People forget about wars because as soon as one ends another one is bound to happen. What is important is that they do their best to bring everybody home.
The Korean War is one of those forgotten wars. Wedged in the middle of WWII and the Vietnam War, people don’t tend to focus on it much when reviewing history books. However, within this overlooked conflict we get the courageous story of Ensign Jesse L. Brown. He was the first African-American aviator to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program, was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and was the first African-American naval officer killed in the Korean War. Films of this nature help alert people to history they may have not heard about. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Devotion I may have never known his story. Even if the film is only inspired by true events it allows people the in to research Jesse’s life and distinguish what was true and what was embellished. I myself have spent hours looking into Jesse’s life after watching this picture.
J.D. Dillard does a terrific job directing Devotion. Coming off of smaller budget projects like Sleight and Sweetheart, Dillard handles this film of this scale like he’s been doing it his entire career. You can tell he has a connection to the material in the care he took when crafting the scenes. As a Navy brat, J.D.’s father Lieutenant Bruce Dillard was a Naval flight officer and the second African-American selected to fly with the Blue Angels. He made sure this was more than just a story of a Black pilot befriending a White pilot and overcoming racism. J.D. even fought to use the real aircraft on set as much as possible. When you see these planes in action the cinematography is stunning. Erik Messerschmidt (Mank) worked with aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa Jr. (Top Gun: Maverick) to make those aerial battle scenes look as believable as possible.
Devotion is truly carried by the powerhouse of talent it has in front of the camera. Jonathan Majors gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Jesse Brown. He is the embodiment of what a Black person means when they are told to be twice as good as their White counterparts to get even half of what they deserve. Jesse is loving to his family yet stoic and distant at work. He doesn’t socialize much with his squadron nor does he drink alcohol. He holds himself to an impossibly high standard because he knows what a little mistake could cost him. Watching him open up to Tom and educate him on his life is inspiring. Glen Powell is also great as Tom Hudner. Surprisingly this is Powell’s third turn as a military aviator having portrayed John Glenn in Hidden Figures and Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin in Top Gun: Maverick. Some would call this typecasting, but each of those roles is completely different from the other while all maintaining Powell’s signature charm. Tom is very open to befriending Jesse, but it takes him some time to understand Jesse’s standoffish nature.
Such an educational, inspiring, and moving story is sure to do well this holiday season. The acting is great and the direction is impactful. If Dillard had his way he would have turned this picture into a miniseries. I give Devotion a Decent 8.4/10. J.D. Dillard clearly has bigger movies on the horizon. With rumors of a Star Wars project coming, studios should look to this film as proof Dillard can handle such an endeavor.