JD Dillard’s 2016 breakout feature film, “Sleight,” was a low-budget gem that showcased what this up-and-coming filmmaker could do. Applying an indie sensibility to a gritty, magic-inspired superhero origin story, his focus on character over spectacle made “Sleight” moving and memorable. In Dillard’s new film, the Korean War epic “Devotion,” the budget may have gotten bigger, and the sumptuous, soaring visuals more spectacular, but the emphasis on character remains the same.
That makes “Devotion” an emotional and fitting tribute to the real men behind an incredible true story. The experiences of Lt. Tom Hudner and Ensign Jesse Brown in the Korean War are detailed in Adam Makos’ 2014 book, “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice,” adapted for the screen by Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart. Glen Powell, who has cornered the market on playing wingmen this year with “Devotion” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” plays Tom Hudner; the remarkable actor Jonathan Majors plays Jesse Brown.
Working with Academy Award-winning cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, Dillard creates an aesthetic for “Devotion” that harks back to classic war films: The pilots’ Brylcreemed coifs gleam against their leather bomber jackets; their shiny new Corsair planes sweep triumphantly through the clouds of coastal New England during their training flights. What they’re training for remains to be seen, as this crop of aviators missed out on “The Big Show” of World War II. Tom, a Naval Academy graduate, is antsy to prove himself. Jesse, the Navy’s first Black pilot, just wants to fly.
Jesse also wants to settle down with his young family, and going to combat is the exchange he makes for doing what he loves, despite the worries of his wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson). Bachelor Tom’s still searching for what he’s fighting for (aside from war hero status). He thinks it’s a woman, but he finds that his purpose in combat is right next to him, in his friend Jesse.
“Devotion,” at 2 hours and 18 minutes, takes its time building the world and the characters within, which proves to be crucial motivation for the second half’s aerial action. In laying the groundwork, Crane and Stewart’s script is refreshingly restrained: It shows the characters in natural conversation as they work together and avoids clunky exposition.
We understand the racism Jesse has experienced through tensions with the Marines aboard their aircraft carrier, and an anecdote he relates to Tom about the grueling, unfair swim test he was subjected to by the Navy. We see how he struggles internally with the trauma of racism in the strange ritual he completes when he’s alone, repeating the horrible insults and slurs to himself in the mirror. “It helps,” he says ruefully when Tom catches him. It’s a coping mechanism that’s not explained or fixed, but just a part of his character.
At the same time, Jesse has become an important symbol — for the Navy, for the nation and for the Black sailors who run to the deck to watch his every takeoff and landing. Jesse, who keeps his emotions close to the vest, is uncomfortable when a Life magazine photographer wants a photo shoot of him, but he is quietly moved when one of the Black sailors presents him with a Rolex watch that they went in on as a token of their appreciation.
Powell, with his sharp, all-American profile, fits the bill of a clean-cut New England pilot from privilege, and the supporting cast, including Joe Jonas, Spencer Neville and Nick Hargrove as the other pilots, brings some personality to the posse. Thomas Sadoski is particularly great as their no-nonsense but empathetic commander. But the performance of the film is Majors’, who always makes the unexpected and interesting choice. It’s in the way he hooks a thumb in his flight suit, or the cadence of his speech, or the long look he gives a sailor who can’t believe that Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) has just invited this Black pilot to an exclusive Cannes casino.
It is fun to watch the boys flirt with French women during their shore leave, and while it may seem a dalliance before the action, it’s an important part of knowing Jesse and Tom, and their relationship, before we get to the high-flying heroism. Tonally, “Devotion” remains steady, never going for over-the-top emotion or sensation, simply seeking to express something authentically moving and human. It unmistakably achieves that, delivering a stirring story of friendship during war, and beyond, that is both rare and real.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: PG-13, for strong language, some war action/violence and smoking
Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 23 in general release
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