There’s a surprising moment lodged in the middle of Devotion, J.D. Dillard’s otherwise conventional naval biopic. After some months of service as part of Fighter Squadron 32, pilot Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and his team take shore leave on the coast of Cannes, France. While walking on the beach, Brown comes across film star Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan), who is taken by him and invites him to a private casino party.
The ensuing sequence–filled with witty banter and even a bar brawl–succinctly touches on every major theme in the story while wrapping it in a unique conceit. It could have been its own movie, frankly. Instead, we get it stuck in the middle of a two hour and 20 minute historical thriller that, no matter how entertaining, feels too bloated to elevate above the genre’s conventions.
The film has all the makings for a killer crowdpleaser: a stellar ensemble cast, proven talent behind the camera, and intense aviator combat sequences hot off of Top Gun fever. All of these things, individually, get their chance to shine, but the final product feels like a sum of its parts rather than a greater whole.
The life story of Jesse Brown, the renowned colored airman awarded the Purple Heart for his service during the Korean War, is seen through the lens of his friendship with wingman Tom Hudner (Glen Powell). His do-what-needs-to-be-done attitude creates conflict with Hudner’s by-the-book stylings (it’s not as egregious of a trope here, thankfully), but the two eventually foster deep respect for each other amidst the battles of America’s “Forgotten War.” The film’s third act particularly tests their friendship, culminating in an emotional conclusion sold by Majors and Powell’s strong chemistry.
Majors, of course, takes a larger spotlight between the two of them, portraying Brown’s duality in many powerful scenes. The only Black pilot in the squadron, Brown initially refuses to be defined by his race or the achievement therein. This proves to be a front, as Brown keeps a journal of several discriminatory remarks aimed at him over the years. One powerful scene shows him in front of a mirror, repeating these phrases to fuel his performance as a pilot.
Though this never culminates as a cornerstone theme in the story, overshadowed by motifs of friendship and sacrifice, Majors is such a magnetic performer that every scene feels deliberate and authentic. Saying Majors is a bonafide megatalent is like saying the sky is blue, but he once again bolsters material here in a way few actors ever could.
This film sees Dillard collaborating with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, hot off of his Oscar nomination for David Fincher’s Mank just last year. Messerschmidt and his team exact an incredible precision in the film’s aerial cinematography and war sequences. One scene in particular, an ambush over the 38th parallel, is extremely well done: palpable explosions and horrifying gunfire shot against a chilly winter color palette.
Dialogue scenes can be a bit tedious, however. Interior, nighttime conversations are mostly shot with low lighting with heavy contrast. Light sources tend to not light the actors but rather light the environment around them. Its realism wins you over at first, but it’s a repetitive method that, at times, takes away from the performances.
There are so many highs in Devotion, yet much of it feels padded. The film spends so much time building the camaraderie and intensity of the squadron’s day-to-day that the story’s real inciting incident–the onset of the Korean War–doesn’t happen until the third act. It feels a bit tired seeing the film’s core themes repeated over and over again in scenes that, for all the craft they showcase, don’t get at the heart of the drama.
The film’s final moments strike at the heartstrings, tying a bow on this deeply heartfelt story that may feel abrupt for those who aren’t familiar with the historical events. The filmmakers have their hearts in all the right places, paying tribute to an unsung hero of the armed forces with honor and passion. All that said, those looking for an evolution of the genre should look elsewhere. Devotion hits all the beats and comfortably so, but its insistence on covering a wide gamut of events holds it back from being a new staple in the surprisingly populated canon of planes whooshing on-screen.
Devotion is currently playing in theaters courtesy of Sony Pictures. It was screened as part of the Fiction Feature section at the 2022 Montclair Film Festival.
“Devotion” is a heartfelt honoring of its subjects, performed by a strong ensemble and captured with palpable cinematography, but its bloated script and runtime holds it back from being a home run.
Larry Fried is a filmmaker, writer, and podcaster based in New Jersey. He is the host and creator of the podcast “My Favorite Movie is…,” a podcast dedicated to helping filmmakers make somebody’s next favorite movie. He is also the Visual Content Manager for Special Olympics New Jersey, an organization dedicated to competition and training opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities across the Garden State.