Two rising stars, Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell shine in “Devotion”, a war-drama based on the inspiring friendship between fighter pilots Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner. Jesse LeRoy Brown was the first African-American pilot to complete the U.S. Navy’s flight training program. Along with his wingman and devoted friend Tom Hudner, the pair would become two of the Navy’s best pilots during the Korean War, with Brown earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Directed by J.D. Dillard and written for the screen by Jake Crane and Jonathan A. Stewart, the film is based on the novel “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice” by Adam Makos. Dillard hones in on a segment of Jesse Brown’s life, starting from the time he met Tom Hudner at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. He shows their eventual friendship, but even more time is put on Jesse’s struggle as a black man in the desegregated military of 1950.
If you’ve seen the trailer you know “Devotion” has some war-time action and air combat scenes (they’re exhilarating and worth seeing on the biggest screen possible). But the meat of the movie is Jesse’s experience and the unexpected friendship forged with his wingman. For that reason, more time is spent building the characters (especially Jesse) and some of the story’s key relationships. And while it may take a little while to get off the ground, this development is crucial and ends up significantly helping things down the line.
When we meet Jesse (played with dignity and quiet resolve by Majors), he’s already an accomplished pilot who is generally respected for his skills yet still looked down on by many due to the color of his skin. New to his squad is Tom Hudner (an utterly convincing Powell) who is immediately assigned to be Jesse’s wingman. On top of earning Jesse’s trust in the air, the naive but genuine Tom also seeks to earn his trust as a man. But it takes some time, especially as we get a better understanding of the adversity Jesse has fought to overcome for his entire life.
While showing Jesse’s military service is a big part of the story, we also get a few touching moments with him at home with his wife Daisy (a really good Christina Jackson) and their young daughter. In many ways she’s his anchor, and the film uses her inclusion to reveal another side of Jesse – one as equally important to the story as his piloting scenes. Then there is the racial tension which comes in all sizes. Sometimes it comes from snide remarks that may seem harmless, especially when Jesse appears unfazed. But the film makes it clears that there’s no such thing as harmless racism, and over time it has taken a toll on Jesse despite his best efforts to hide it.
The movie is also helped by the strong chemistry between Majors and Powell which makes what unfolds between their characters feel genuine and true. While the movie could have put a little more time into fleshing out Hudner, his eventual friendship with Jesse doesn’t come across as a made-for-screen concoction. There are actual barriers they must break down and hurdles they’re forced to navigate. It’s an honest and thoughtfully conceived relationship that’s cemented in the final 20 minutes when they’re called into combat as the Korean War intensifies.
The big fighter plane scenes leading up to the finale are a thrilling mix of practical and digital effects that look amazing and thrusts us into the heart of air combat. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to wanting more of it. But the heart of “Devotion” is with the characters, namely Jesse Brown. Dillard, Crane, and Stewart never lose sight of that which makes this more than your standard-issue war movie. Instead it shares the story of someone we all should know about while highlighting a friendship that we all could learn from. “Devotion” is now showing in theaters.