War films are a dime-a-dozen in the film business. However, there is a rarity in watching one that wholly dives into the protagonist’s story and humanity to showcase a hero’s love, life, and struggles during his service in a war that’s largely forgotten. Devotion from filmmaker J.D. Dillard (Sleight, Sweetheart) is just the film people have been waiting for in this regard.
Following the life of one of the US Navy’s first Black aviators, Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), during the early days of the Korean War, Devotion takes us on a journey through the days of Brown’s service in the Navy and his private life at home with his wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), and his daughter. Not only does Jesse deal with constant bigotry in the Navy, but it is also inescapable at home, surrounded by white neighbors. Each new day brings its challenges, yet Jesse is ready to meet them head-on every step of the way.
It isn’t until Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) joins their group that Jesse has another friend. Even upon being invited into Brown’s home, Daisy tells Hudner that he’s the only other person besides fellow pilot Carol Mohring (Nick Hargrove) Jesse has ever invited over. Daisy asks Tom to keep Jesse safe as once they’re overseas, she can no longer protect him. Tom assures Daisy he will look out for Jesse and tries to keep this promise to the best of his abilities, however, both of the men’s trust and devotion to staying by one another’s sides are put to the ultimate test when they see themselves on a rescue mission flying over no man’s land at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.
Devotion is an emotional rollercoaster grounded in the performances of Jonathan Majors as Jesse Brown and Glen Powell as Tom Hudner, Brown’s wingman. Both actors pack an emotional punch that will leave your heart aching. The pair have immense chemistry that shines on-screen, making Devotion even more watchable as each moment passes. There are many grueling moments throughout Jesse’s journey that are difficult to watch, but it provides the audience with context about the man he was and what he fought so hard to achieve. This plays out brilliantly in a scene where a newspaper is interviewing Jesse. When they point out that he is a Black naval aviator, he corrects them by cutting them off and letting them know that being a naval aviator is generally difficult and that his race wasn’t a factor in the difficulty level.
Of course, that didn’t negate the fact that Jesse had to deal with racism from fellow aviators and other military personnel on the ship he was deployed to during the war. It’s made even plainer when he’s written up by Hudner on a mission log and told that something like this would be a stain on his record forever. Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be the same for his white counterparts. This is another moment when Jesse has to remind Tom to be his wingman and to see the differences between them and the treatment they receive while serving.
Devotion is one of those films where each conversation is felt, and no other duo than Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell could have handled these roles with such presence and grace. Through every interaction and beat, you’re completely locked in. Whereas the battle scenes are some of the best seen in a modern war movie, on par with the high-stake tension of films like 1917 and Dunkirk, I would have been extremely content watching a movie that was strictly emotional one-on-one conversations between Majors and Powell.
In a year that already saw the high-flying success of Top Gun: Maverick, Devotion rises to the occasion to deliver even more of the best flight sequences you’ve ever seen on film. Despite the bar already being set high, watching this film in IMAX is an experience unlike any other. J.D. Dillard’s direction creates a sense of tactility and first-hand suspense as the aircrafts take flight – you always feel like you’re in the cockpit with Jesse Brown himself. In addition to how these flight sequences are filmed, the sound design, sound editing, and music by Chanda Dancy bring additional cinematic layers to solidify the in-flight experience. To say the least, Devotion deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can reach.
Devotion is in a league of its own when it comes to war films. While it tows a similar line in terms of the formula, this hero’s tale is elevated by a unique beating heart that has not been seen anywhere else. The narrative doesn’t glamorize war or any military branches, it depicts historic events with a keen focus on the humanity that drove these individuals. The importance lies in the conversations between Brown and Hudner and a real-life story that may not be well-known to many. The pacing is strategic in a way that allows us to really know these subjects intimately, without the distraction of gunfire and bombs. Devotion succeeds because it blends powerful performances with stunning visuals, not relying solely on one or the other – something that wouldn’t have been the case had J.D. Dillard not been the person behind the camera.