Devotion movie 2022

Devotion

Devotion is a biopic about Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first African American naval aviator.  The movie begins in early 1950, when Lieutenant Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) transfers to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, stationed at Rhode Island.  Tom meets Jesse, an ensign who has already distinguished himself flying the Bearcat.  Tom, a genial and easygoing guy, tries to befriend Jesse, but Jesse keeps his guard up.  One morning, Tom hears someone saying incredibly racist things in the locker room area.  He’s confused when the only other person in the room is Jesse.

Days later, Tom sees Jesse stranded by the side of the road and gives him a ride home.  Tom meets Jesse’s wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) and their daughter Pam.  While Jesse plays with his daughter, Daisy and Tom share a beer.  (Jesse didn’t drink.)  She asks Tom to be there for her husband when he needs him.  Surprised, Tom agrees, even though his relationship with Jesse has only been professional to that point.  (You might suspect that Devotion tells the story of an African American hero through the eyes of a White man.  Rest assured that the focus of the story is Jesse throughout.)

In an effort to deter Soviet aggression in the Mediterranean, Tom, Jesse and the rest of the pilots are reassigned to Fighter Squadron 32 and tasked with flying and landing the F4U Corsair aboard an aircraft carrier.  The Corsair is much more powerful than the Bearcat, and Jesse initially has trouble landing it because the nose of the plane obscures the landing area.  He later tells Tom that he prefers to use his own visual because he doesn’t trust the White crewmen to guide him correctly.  After a fellow pilot crashes his plane during a practice run, Tom angers Jesse by criticizing the pilot minutes after the incident.  

Eventually, as Tom and Jesse become friends, Tom learns how differently the world works for him and Jesse.  When the pilots are on leave in Cannes, Jesse tells Tom that he doesn’t want or need Tom to fight his battles for him.  Tom may have felt he was doing the right thing, but as Jesse knows, it will only make matters worse.  Later, after a mission in Korea when Jesse disobeys an order, Jesse mentions it in his mission report.  Tom never realizes that his intent of being factual will have consequences for a Black man.  Tom isn’t racist, but because he is White, he has no idea of the struggles Jesse had to deal with to become an aviator, and that have continued ever since.  What Tom overheard in the locker room months ago was Jesse repeating the hateful words he’s heard to motivate himself in moments of anxiety or doubt.  

The story Devotion tells has several objectives in mind.  First, it offers an honest discussion about racism for those who believe they aren’t racists.  The movie never talks down, and instead prefers an approach that respects both the characters and the audience.  (This is not an “eat your broccoli” movie.)  Second, Devotion wants to provide a complete portrait of the man Jesse Brown was.  Not just that he was a hero, but that he also was a complex and sensitive human being.  Finally, the movie is a well-crafted war movie, featuring aerial sequences that were thrilling in their authenticity.  (Working aircraft from the period were used.)

Devotion avoids the trap of many biopics that deify their subject.  The movie left me feeling that I not only learned about someone who was noteworthy because of their achievements, but because of who they were as a person.  Majors does an exceptional job bringing Jesse to life.  Powell, in his second aviator role of 2022, does well as the affable Tom, a man who is forever changed by his relationship with Jesse.  Aptly directed by J.D. Dillard, Devotion is both exciting and moving.   Recommended.

Analysis

Devotion is a well-made war movie constructed with elements used by many other war movies.  It’s the story of a hero who’s an outsider who struggles to earn the respect of his comrades-in-arms, but who ultimately is recognized for his bravery under fire.  The movie’s frame of reference is at the outset of a conflict, a period that is generally less well known.  In the end, the hero is decorated for bravery, but his actions have been lost or forgotten over time.  The movie features impressively realistic training sequences, male bonding and intense combat sequences.  If you’re a fan of war movies, you may have thought of Hacksaw Ridge, We Were Soldiers and Midway.  Not to be glib, but those same elements also figure heavily in the fictional Top Gun: Maverick.

I’m not bringing this up to try to dissuade you from seeing the movie.  Actually, I consider Devotion’s reliance on familiar war movie tropes as probably the best way to bring the story of Jesse Brown to life.  Instead of having a White protagonist struggle to gain the acceptance and respect of his White peers, the movie shows how that struggle is fundamentally different for a protagonist who is Black.

Instead of motivating himself with the knowledge that he has what it takes, he repeats the racist taunts he’s heard from white people.  He views people like Tom with suspicion because white people who have helped him in the past want to take credit for his success.  He also disobeys the orders from his white superior officers because people in those roles have often told him the wrong thing to do in the past, so that he will fail.  Jesse’s journey has mostly involved circumventing or overcoming the people I would often look to for help and would usually get it.

Devotion makes clear that Jesse is as good an aviator as his peers, if not better.  All he wants is to be treated as an equal.  Getting singled out for attention for a piece in Life magazine makes him uncomfortable, since others will twist it around and say that Jesse was only successful because the military went out of the way to help a Black man succeed.  He doesn’t appreciate Tom standing up for him because he doesn’t want to be seen as needing to rely on others to fight his battles.  The fact that Jesse helped save the lives of the Marines who wanted to beat him up is a cruel irony.  The only movie that comes to mind that delved into this territory was Hacksaw Ridge.  The difference there was that Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was hated because he was a conscious objector.  If he had picked up a rifle and agreed to fight like everyone else, nobody would have had a problem with him, because he was White.

War movies rarely acknowledge that White and Black soldiers play by an entirely different set of rules.  After the mission to take out the bridges, Tom makes a note of how Jesse disobeyed his order to return to the carrier and instead take out the remaining bridge.  Afterwards, Jesse has to explain to Tom that since there’s a record of his insubordination, he’ll never be promoted, even after Tom tries to amend the official record.  Since White people make up the chain of command, Tom will never have to worry about an unwise decision affecting his future military career.  They’ll easily overlook his mistake in judgment because he looks like them.  For Jesse, that one choice will hold him back forever.

If I’m making Devotion sound like an “eat your broccoli” movie, it’s not.  The movie depicts these moments of racial awareness in a plain and straightforward way, often by simply having Jesse and Tom talk about what’s happening as rational and empathic adults.  Even though the movie uses the dialog between Jesse and Tom to inform the audience about racism in 1950, I never once felt the movie was doing so in a manipulative way.  It never once resorts to shock or melodrama to make its case.  Instead, it respects both Jesse and Tom as characters, and relies on the maturity of the audience to understand what is being said.

I’m leery of making this comparison, because I know there are some folks who really hate the movie, but Devotion also reminded me of Green Book.  Tom is like Frank (Viggo Mortensen), a White man who isn’t racist but is completely unaware of what life is for a Black man like Don (Mahershala Ali).  The two films work on different emotional levels, but the parallels are there.

Usually characters in war movies tend to be one-dimensional.  This movie, however, takes the time to show us Jesse from many different angles before the combat starts.  We get to see him interact with his family, his fellow aviators, Tom, Elizabeth Taylor (!) and so on.  Jesse isn’t depicted as the stereotypical war movie hero, but a complex and conflicted human being.  In this way, Devotion is a character study first and a war movie second.

The acting in the movie is solid across the board, starting with Jonathan Majors.  As Jessie, Majors delivers an incredibly moving performance.  I’d only seen Majors in the Marvel series Loki, which didn’t give me any indication of the range he’s capable of.  His performance in Devotion is an extremely nuanced and multifaceted portrayal of a heroic figure, one that humanizes him while simultaneously highlighting the qualities that made him special to begin with.

Majors portrays Jesse as a man who is guarded and restrained out of necessity, but who also relaxes and enjoys life whenever he feels comfortable enough to let his guard down.  The harsh reality of the society he lives in weighs on his mind at all times, giving the impression of a man walking a tightrope without a net.  Majors’ Jesse is also incredibly driven, always striving to succeed even though there are people around him who will use every opportunity to hold him back.  The scenes of Jesse using all the racism and hatred he’s experienced to fight back crippling fear and anxiety are simply amazing.  The constant harassment wears on Jesse, but also how he managed to overcome it.  It’s an excellent performance that establishes Majors as one of the best young actors working today.  Majors has a significant role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Kang the Conqueror, starting with the upcoming Ant-Man movie.  I’ll be curious to see how much he’ll be able to bring to that role.

Due to circumstances beyond his control, both of Glen Powell’s performances in 2022 have him in the role of an aviator.  This coincidence is due to the release of Top Gun: Maverick being delayed three years.  Regardless, after seeing Powell as Tom in this movie and “Hangman” in TGM, I believe that he has the look and personality to keep playing pilots for the foreseeable future.  He definitely has a much more significant part in Devotion than in TGM, and he shows good range.  That doesn’t prevent me from envisioning him cast as the pilot in an Airport-type movie at some point.

Christina Jackson was a delight as Daisy.  I wouldn’t be overselling her impact on the movie by stating that she steals every scene she’s in.  Usually, the role of the wife in a war movie is a thankless job.  There’s only the scenes she shares with her husband before he goes off to war, scenes of her looking worried while her husband is at war, then a scene where she has to deal with his death.  Jackson makes every one of her scenes count, infusing every line with a soulfulness and earthiness that made her character’s loss a tragedy that I really felt.

I remember when I first saw the trailer for Devotion, and I kept wondering what the title was referring to.  That and how much the trailer reminded me of Top Gun: Maverick.  I suspect the marketing department decided that the best way to sell the movie was to make it look like a variation of another movie that many people saw and liked.  If you watch the trailer below, you’ll see what I mean.  The title cards state that the movie is “Inspired by the incredible true story…In America’s forgotten war…He made history.”  But the trailer really sells the war footage, so it’s difficult to tell whether the movie is about Jesse Brown or the Korean War.  The message is vague and conflicting.

After seeing the movie, I understood that the title was a reference to how Jesse ended each letter to Daisy.  As to why so few people saw this movie, I would guess that between the vague title and the familiar-looking trailer, people decided to sit this one out.  Maybe the movie should have been named “Corsair”, after the plane Jesse flew.  Or maybe “Jesse Brown”.  Regardless, between the title and the trailers that made the movie look like Top Gun set in the Fifties, I think people didn’t know what to make of the movie and didn’t see it.  Hopefully, they’ll give it a try when it’s available on cable/streaming.

As I’m writing this review, Devotion has only made $14m domestic at the box office ($15m worldwide.)  If you’re a movie budget hawk, you’ll note that this is a very poor return for a movie with a reported $90m budget.  In all honesty, I don’t pay much attention to how much a movie costs.  All that matters to me is that the movie is entertaining, and Devotion certainly is.  War movies like this one tend to be expensive anyway, so the fact that it cost $100m to make isn’t surprising.  This is a well-crafted movie all around.  I watched the movie from the second row and the money made to make the movie was always apparent.  Devotion was beautifully shot by DP Erik Messerschmidt, crisply edited by Billy Fox and aptly conducted by J.D. Dillard.  The screenplay by Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart is filled with smart, honest dialog.  The production design was top-notch, with attention given to make the movie as period authentic as possible.

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the aerial scenes.  Both the training and the combat sequences looked spectacular.  Director Dillard’s focus on using practical effects over CGI definitely paid off, because seeing the actual aircraft from that period in time in the air looked incredible.  Wikipedia tells me that stunt coordinator Kevin LaRosa also worked on Top Gun: Maverick.  Maybe that’s why the movies have such a similar feel.  It really doesn’t matter because the stunts look incredible in both movies.
One last bit of trivia.  Joe Jonas is among the supporting cast as fellow pilot Marty Goode.  His brother Nick Jonas was also in the movie Midway (as Bruno Gaido).  Your turn, brother Kevin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s