Whenever Hollywood wants to tackle the topic of racism in America, they never hesitate to pull out ole reliable and make a film set in the 1950s.
Doing a biography about somebody’s life is to bring to life a story that is unknown to the masses within the general public. The latest production from Sony Pictures’ entitled “Devotion” has a simple enough idea behind it, create a story about United States Navy fighter pilot Jesse Brown, the first African-American aviator to complete the U.S. Navy’s primary flight training program.
Honoring the men and women that have served in our military both past and present is not a new concept but the added pressure comes from making sure the story does right by the person they are honoring. The story of Jesse brown looks good on paper when coupled with the real-life friendship of his Navy mate Tom Hudner. The problem is that the filmmakers don’t give audiences anything more to the story that they can’t look up on a Wikipedia page.
“Devotion” is inspired by the true story of Jesse L. Brown, played by Jonathan Majors and set in 1950 during the height of the Korean War. Brown is the first and only African American pilot on his squadron and deals with the reality of 1950s racism by staring into the bathroom mirror and repeating racial slurs and insults to motivate him on his flights.
When Lt. Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) is assigned to be his wingman, Brown has a standoffish reaction to embracing a white pilot. Still, the duo of accomplished pilots becomes close friends especially when Hudner becomes a first hand witness to the bigotry that Brown suffers everyday. When the United States is called in to defend their allies in South Korea who are being overwhelmed by their enemies in the North as well as China, Brown and Hudner are on the first line of defense with the objective to bring everyone home.
Hollywood is making a major investment in actor Jonathan Majors with his upcoming roles in ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ as well as the upcoming ‘Creed 3.’ Majors does a good job of bringing to life a tortured man dealing with the pressures of being the first African American in his position giving him more pressure to succeed.
Brown is a man who is reluctant to let anyone else fight his battles for him even when Hudner wants to step up for a friend. Trauma such as his commanding officer refusing to pin his lapel wings at graduation or being forced to take Navy tests multiple times to his racist superiors is an emotional scar that Majors portrays without showing you the damage on-screen.
The film portrays Brown as a man who’s motivated by two things being a devoted husband and a loving father. On the flip side, you have Glen Powell who has gotten used to playing roles in aviation due to his roles in Top Gun: Maverick and Hidden Figures. Powell’s portrayal of Hudner is a man who is trying to empathize with a friend without giving him pity.
Hudner is a by-the-book pilot who is the best at his position because he always does what he’s told. That dynamic becomes the yin to Brown’s yang as a character who has been taught that sometimes you can’t do what you’re told when no one has faith in you.
The special effects are well done in this film as the filmmakers used interior footage of actors flying the aircraft using a rear seat modified to resemble the cockpit allowing actors to simulate piloting the aircraft during actual aerial maneuvers.
So much of the focus is on racism in the 1950s in America that it forgets to have a true story that connects these characters to make their freshship believable on the big screen. The film doesn’t have much of a plot and doesn’t spend enough time building a connection between the two characters that you wouldn’t believe that they were as good friends as they were. The marketing may mislead you into thinking that this is a buddy drama between two good friends however that relationship isn’t well enough to develop to come to that conclusion.
‘Devotion’ makes the mistake of making the story about the racial timeframe in America rather than telling the story about the guy who lived it. The film takes place during the heat of the Korean War along with the growing aggression coming from Soviet Russia in the events leading up to the Cold War. However, the film spends most of its time in the second act about a rendezvous party in France with little Elizabeth Taylor that does nothing for the larger story at hand.
The film forgoes The Xs and Os of the war in order to highlight the heroism of brown, in the course of doing craft a story that is rather dull and uneventful for someone at a runtime that reaches almost 140 minutes.
The film wants to do good for its protagonist but doesn’t know how to do so in a gripping manner. The end result is an unfinished biography that should be a far more interesting story that is uneventful.
Devotion is a film with a story to tell but doesn’t convey that story into an entertaining film for audiences. A bland mix of ideas that is good at creating the snowy warzone of North Korea but not as good at telling the compelling story the filmmakers were shooting for.