Tue. Dec 6th, 2022
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'Devotion' is a stunning story about unwavering friendship

The new film “Devotion”, now in theaters, covers a lot of ground in 140 minutes. It’s about the Korean War. It’s about naval aviation. It’s about love. Loss. A man fighting for his country when his country won’t fight for him.

But above all, “Devotion” is about unwavering friendship.

I understand that might sound cheesy, but stay with me. “Devotion” chronicles the true story of Ensign Jesse Brown, the United States’ first Black naval aviator. An adaptation of Adam Makos’ book, “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Brotherhood and Sacrifice”, the film follows Brown — played masterfully by the incredible Jonathan Majors — over his illustrious career as a pilot and the relationships he forged along the way.

Often dubbed the “Forgotten War,” the Korean War is one of the least discussed or memorialized conflicts in U.S. history. The events of the movie are centered on the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir from late-November to mid-December 1950 and focus on Brown’s incredible story and the heroism shown by his wingman, Lt. Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), when the unthinkable happens.

Inspired by the heroic true story of the Navy’s most exceptional pilots, #DevotionMovie takes flight exclusively in movie theaters October. pic.twitter.com/dorABLQ2FR

— Devotion (@DevotionMovie) May 26, 2022

[The following includes details (read: spoilers) about the movie and real-life events that inspired it.]

The two wingmen could not have come from more diverse backgrounds. Brown is the son of Mississippi sharecroppers and Hudner comes from country-club elites in Massachusetts. Both ended up with the Fighting 32s —a squadron of F4U Corsairs off the USS Leyte — and eventually flew missions in support of Marines on the ground in North Korea.

“Devotion” begins after both have already qualified as pilots and does a beautiful job of showing both the challenges Brown faces and the unexpected (for its time) support and camaraderie he shared with his white squadron mates.

Majors and Powell are phenomenal as Brown and Hudner. The duo is electric on screen, particularly as Brown learns to trust his wingman both personally and professionally.

This movie was a personal project for Powell, who was the driving force behind bringing this story to the big screen. Throw in outstanding supporting performances from Thomas Sadoski, Joe Jonas and Christina Jackson, plus up-and-coming director J.D. Dillard, and you’ve got a recipe for success.

Dillard grew up around aviation as the son of a naval flight officer. His father Bruce was only the second Black man to join the ranks of the prestigious Blue Angels. It was important to Dillard that this story be shared, and that it be done well.

“You always try and put some of yourself in the work that you’re making, but to be able to take so much of my past and my dad’s story and my mom’s story and pour that into this,” Dillard said. “There’s a difference between telling a story because you want to and feeling called to tell it, and ‘Devotion’ is the latter.”

Part of doing it well meant getting the aviation sequences right. They were able to track down six Corsairs — an impressive feat considering there are only about 11 or 12 working planes around the world — and pulled in Kevin LaRosa as the film’s aerial coordinator, a role he also filled in Top Gun: Maverick. 

The result is breathtaking.

As it usually goes with film adaptations of books like this, parts of the story had to be changed for brevity’s sake. One of my favorite stories shared in the book was when the stewards from the ship (who served officers meals in the wardroom) chipped in to get Brown a Rolex from the onboard store for his birthday. Upon presenting the $60 gift to Brown, the steward delivered one of my favorite quotes.

“Thank you for lifting us up,” the petty officer said to Jesse. “Now on this ship, when a Black man passes you in the hallway, you never know, he might be just a cook — or he might be a flyer.”

The story made it into the film — albeit changed slightly — but the quote did not.

On the flip side, Majors and the filmmakers were able to take powerful moments from the book and amplify them. Majors is well on his way to being an absolute superstar, and some of his best work comes when he’s acting across from himself in a mirror. In Makos’s book, he described a routine that 12-year-old Jesse Brown started: repeating all of the awful and racist words, slurs and comments said to him back at himself. He would do this until, “…his eyes remained steady, until he could shrug away the vilest insult without flinching.”

Majors was so powerful in that moment, and it’s nothing short of moving. More incredibly, it was one of the earliest scenes they shot.

Overall, “Devotion” is a stunning, emotionally challenging film. Jesse Brown’s story is one that everyone should know, and — even if you’re not tied to aviation or the Navy — is absolutely worth seeing in theaters. Just don’t forget your tissues.

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