Devotion (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): One black US Navy pilot in the Korean War

“Devotion”, which is currently available on Netflix in South Korea, is about one real-life black US Navy pilot who deserves to be known more for his barrier-breaking efforts. Although he is often regarded via a white figure who happened to fight along with him, the movie thankfully avoids clichés expected from its main subject, while mostly working as a somber but engaging war drama about race and comradeship.

The movie opens with the arrival of Lieutenant Junior Grade Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) in Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, US in 1950. He is assigned to Fighter Squadron 32, and he soon meets the members of the squadron including Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), who is incidentally the sole black soldier in the group. Although their first encounter is rather strained, Hudner gradually befriends Brown, and Brown lets Hudner come a bit closer to him even though he usually remains guarded to others around him.

As the movie often shifts to Brown’s viewpoint, we get some glimpse into what Brown has to deal with everyday. While everyone in the squadron treats him as their equal partner, there is always a certain gap between them and him, and he always hardens himself as often throwing racist insults to himself in private. He is certainly one of the best pilots in the group, but he should keep himself discreet and watchful, and we feel more of the constant pressure upon him especially when the movie indirectly implies how he is regarded by many of white soldiers.

Hudner does not have any particularly serious prejudice on Brown, but he recognizes how Brown looks lonely and isolated at times. Without any condescension, he simply approaches closer to Brown when Brown happens to need a little help, and Brown subsequently lets Hudner get to know him as well as his wife more. Once Hudner gains Brown’s trust, Brown comes to accept Hudner as a comrade of his, and Hunder also comes to respect Brown’s determination and devotion.

The screenplay by Jake Crane and Jonathan A. Stewart, which is based on Adam Makos’ nonfiction novel “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice”, thankfully does not overplay the racial aspects of the story. While it does not overlook at all how much Brown has to struggle with racism everyday, it also avoids presenting Hudner as your average white savior character. He and Brown simply come to develop their comradeship as getting to know each other day by day, and Hudner just does what he has to do as a comrade of Brown when Brown happens to be racially insulted at one point.

Nevertheless, the movie still does not ignore how much Brown is disadvantaged compared to Hudner, and that aspect becomes more apparent when they are put into the Korean War later in the story. During one mission, Brown makes an unauthorized move for the complete success of the mission, and Hudner writes that on his report, but then Brown points out how that will make him look pretty bad to those high-ranking officers and generals up there. As one of a few black pilots in the US Navy, he should always be flawless in his record unlike Hudner, who is much more advantaged due to his race as well as his better career background.

In the end, there comes a point where the comradeship between Hudner and Brown goes through its ultimate test, and the movie wisely maintains its rather restrained but dignified attitude while bringing enough tension to the climactic part. Although the action sequences in the film are relatively modest compared to the ones in “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022), they are mostly executed well on the whole thanks to the good efforts from the crew members including cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, who previously won an Oscar for “Mank” (2020).

The two lead performers of the movie are solid as complementing well each other throughout the story. Jonathan Majors, who has steadily advanced since his wonderful breakout supporting turn in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019) and will surely draw much more attention from us via “Magazine Dreams” (2023) and “Creed III” (2023) in this year, is often stoically intense as required by his role, but he is also tender and sensitive during several small private moments when his character opens up himself more to Hudner. On the opposite, Glen Powell, who recently became more notable to us thanks to his colorful supporting role in “Top Gun: Maverick”, humbly stands by his co-star without overshadowing him at all, and he and Majors deftly handle a quiet but poignant scene which functions as the emotional highpoint of the last act of the movie. In case of several other substantial supporting performers, Christina Jackson holds her own small place well as Brown’s loving wife, and Thomas Sadoski is also effective as Brown and Hudner’s no-nonsense squadron leader.

In conclusion, “Devotion” is a solid war drama film, and director J. D. Dillard, whose father was incidentally a Naval flight officer and the second African-American selected to fly for the Blue Angels, handles the story and characters with enough respect and care. Although you may be disappointed if you expect it to be as thrilling as “Top Gun: Maverick”, it will touch you in addition to enlightening you a bit on its main subject, so I recommend you to give it a chance someday.

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