MovieSteve rating:
Your star rating:

Three stories fight for space in Devotion. Most obviously the Korean War, which turns up so infrequently it’s almost as if film-makers have taken a vow of silence on the subject (Robert Altman’s Mash, while set in the Korean War, was really about Vietnam – and it was 50 years ago). Second up, the trials and tribulations of a black naval flyer in a largely white American fighting force after the Second World War. And third, a story of platonic love between two men.

It’s a true story, about white preppy academy guy Lieutenant Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, who’s also the producer) and black up-by-his-bootstraps Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors, so hissably good as Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania), two naval aviators thrown together on training on Rhode Island in the late 1940s where together they yearn to see action and feel the stigma of having missed out on the Big Show (the flyers’ jockish term for the Second World War).

Following the classic war movie template, there’s the getting-to-know-the-guys segment – training, larks, some soul searching and a revelation or two, that Hudner is unusual in being not in the slightest bit racist (not compared to the other guys at any rate) and that Brown, while a steady-as-he-goes beacon of restraint and solidity externally, has internalised the relentless racism he’s been subjected to in his life and uses it as motivational fuel.

Pausing for some light relief on the Mediterranean coast en route, where the guys bizarrely meet Elizabeth Taylor (played by Serinda Swan, a tough gig she pulls off). This actually happened, by the way, if the photographs over the end credits are to be believed. The action eventually shifts to Korea, where the Cold War has suddenly gone white hot and where, war-movie logic dictates, the third act must play out.

Brown and Hudner on the deck of an aircraft carrier
Top guns Brown and Hudner

Jesse Brown was the first African-America aviator in the US Navy and Majors invests him with dignity but his smart performance also tries to offest the slightly saintly way Brown has been rendered by screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart. The Hudner role is also tricky, and Powell also does a good job as a guy who’s one third jock pilot, one third decent guy, one third white privilege. Both Brown and Powell are, at bottom, fine human beings, and we do get that, and the sense that here are two men who recognise something of themself in the other guy and it draws them closer together.

The budget is not quite big enough to mount a top-flight war movie but producer Powell and director JD Dillard have a go anyway, using real planes for the flying sequences (choreographed by Kevin LaRosa II, who designed Top Gun: Maverick’s flight sequences) and mixing them in with some carefully used CGI. While nothing’s going to top Top Gun: Maverick, these sequences are thrilling. But then the energy level goes up several notches in all the combat sequences – dog fights, bombing missions, anti-aircraft fire. War nuts will also enjoy the more traditional battle sequences – trench warfare, in effect – which Dillard also handles well, arguably better than the flying stuff, where he’s constrained by cash concerns.

Dillard has skin in the game. His father was a black naval flyer in a largely white cohort of guys and young JD grew up at his father’s knee hearing tales of what went down back in the day. The movie is dedicated to Dillard Sr and there’s a suggestion somewhere that he had a technical/consultant role on it, though no credit appears either on the IMDb or in the end credits.

Overall, Dillard is unsure whether to stick with gritty truth or to sand surfaces smooth in the interests of making big-screen entertainment. He tries to have it both ways and ends up with not quite enough of either to really satisfy. Nor is the film’s three-legged structure in his favour – is it about Korea, or Brown, or Brown and Hudner? Up front it claims to be about Korea. Though it’s obviously more about Brown. Which leaves Hudner eventually starting to feel like a tokenistic presence, a character needed in the film to get white buy-in, even though this is entirely unfair to the memory and friendship of both Brown and Hudner in real life.

Devotion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2023

Leave a Comment