Review: 'Devotion' Tells an Important Historical Story but Doesn't Soar

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 23, 2022

Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) in Columbia Pictures' "Devotion"
Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) in Columbia Pictures' "Devotion"  (Source:Eli Adé/Columbia Pictures)

Many well-crafted war films honor the sacrifices and valor of soldiers ("Saving Private Ryan," "Dunkirk") or critique the brutality and futility of war ("Full Metal Jacket," "All Quiet on the Western Front"). In the pantheon of war films, only a few feature Black protagonists, including "Da 5 Bloods," "Miracle at St. Anna," "Glory," and "Red Tails."

Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell star in biographical war drama "Devotion," based on the true story of Jesse Brown — the "first Black aviator in naval history" — and white aviator Tom Hudner during the Korean War, often called the "Forgotten War."

Directed by J.D. Dillard ("Sleight," "Sweetheart") and written by Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart, the film — which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival — is an adaptation of Adam Makos' 2014 book "Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice," which recounts the true story of Brown and Hudner's friendship.

The film follows Jesse and Tom meeting, their training and battles, and their deepening friendship.

"Devotion" astutely confronts the racism Jesse faces as a Black aviator. Jesse struggles with incessant slurs and insults from a colleague; bars refuse to serve him; he and his wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) contend with neighbors calling the police for a "noise disturbance." Tom faces how to be a good ally and friend to Jesse.

Yet, it's disturbing that Jesse gets motivated to fly by berating himself with horrific racist slurs while staring in the mirror. As a white person, I will never know what it's like to be a person of color or experience racism firsthand. I kept thinking how Black audiences already deal with a bombardment of racism in a white supremacist society. Perhaps the intention of these scenes is to foster empathy, for white audiences to put themselves in the shoes of Black people hearing racist attacks, as Jesse often looks at the camera while saying them. Perhaps Jesse does this as reclamation, so when white people spew racism, it deflates their power.

Glen Powell not only acted in the film, he's also an executive producer and developed the film. Meeting the real Tom Hudner, Powell was moved seeing photos of Jesse Brown around Hudner's house.

Director J.D. Dillard — whose father was also a naval aviator — told Deadline he saw "a lot of my dad in that story."

Jonathan Majors is an exciting, intriguing actor. In each chameleonic performance — such as "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" (where he first captured my attention), Spike Lee's "Da 5 Bloods," "The Harder They Fall" and series "Loki" — he transforms his body language, speech, mannerisms, and cadence, fully embodying the character. Majors absolutely deserves more lead roles.

While Majors gives a solid performance in "Devotion," his charisma and talent weren't enough for me to elevate the film out of mediocrity. Trite dialogue plagues the film, which I found tedious, accompanied by a standard score. I wish the cinematography felt more kinetic and exhilarating.

However, one of the film's strengths is how incredibly realistic the flight sequences and aerial combat look — an especially impressive feat given the smaller budget — and they used planes from the era.

In one scene, Lieutenant commander Dick Cevoli (Thomas Sadoski) tells Tom how most wars are forgotten (a nod to the Korean War's moniker), how wars shouldn't define you, and how he should focus on being someone people can rely on. With many war films overflowing with jingoism and propaganda, it's refreshing to hear.

I can see why "Devotion" was made — boasting the template for a good film, it tells an important historical story. Hollywood doesn't greenlight enough films by Black filmmakers starring Black actors. Containing good elements, it's clear that a lot of love and insight went into its making. Sadly, it just didn't work for me. I wish I found it a more memorable, impactful film.

"Devotion" opens in theaters Wednesday, November 23, 2022.