It feels a little mean to say that the best part of a movie is its ending. However, when the “based on a true story” Korean War drama Devotion reveals in its final moments just how faithful it’s been to its source material—the real-life friendship between Navy pilots Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) and Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the Navy’s first Black aviator—it’s easily the film’s most moving part.
Devotion is the movie your high school history teacher sanctions for when you have a substitute, something its PG-13 rating suggests may have been its ultimate purpose. Like many movies about real-life interracial friendships (Green Book, Remember the Titans, Best of Enemies, take your pick) Devotion feels like a factory-standard drama with a simplified sense of racial reconciliation. That it was made with some sense of care for the real-life figures at its center makes it slightly more admirable than other movies of its type. So also does the welcome depth that Majors, the script and director J.D. Dillard give Brown. But outside that sense of commitment, Devotion is an unremarkable experience.
Powell’s Hudner is our entry point into the story, as he arrives at Quonset Point Air Base in Rhode Island in 1950. Hudner, like many of the men he meets at the base, eagerly joined the Navy to fight in World War II, only to see the war end before he could graduate the academy. Hudner and most of his fellow airmen are mildly unsatisfied with their dull military experience, but Brown—a talented pilot whose race puts him at an additional disadvantage—is actively angry, expressing his frustration through show-off, flyboy airfield antics.
Everything changes when a brief mission in the Mediterranean turns into a longer deployment with the sudden onset of the Korean War. The rest of the film follows Hudner, Brown and their fellow aviators during their time in battle, and Brown’s wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) wringing her hands back at home. Daisy gets some comfort from her husband’s letters, which the script lifts from Brown’s real-life letters to his wife.
Had a studio made this movie 10 years ago, Devotion’s treatment of Brown’s experience would likely have been told exclusively through Hudner’s perspective, making it a self-righteous historical parable about tolerance with the edges sanded off. Fortunately, that’s less the case here. That isn’t to say Devotion gets heavy, deep and real with the truth of a Black man’s experience in the Navy circa 1950, but it at least has the presence of mind to make this story a two-hander.
Devotion spends a lot of time with Majors’ Brown, Daisy and their toddler daughter, establishing a realistic, loving family dynamic. Brown’s friendship with Hudner is far from perfect, even if some of the lessons Hudner has to learn about racial inequality feel like relative softballs. Powell portrays Hudner as a decent guy trying to do the right thing, something his all-American good looks have no trouble communicating. Majors, in turn, does an excellent job carrying Brown’s deep insecurities and anger, visibly suppressing his emotions until they burst out at inopportune moments. Apart from these aspects, though, nothing about Devotion stands out. The rest of the characters are so lacking in interiority that the cast, with the exception of a couple of recognizable performers like Joseph Cross, Thomas Sadoski and Joe Jonas, blend together. Most of the dramatic beats are so paint-by-numbers that you could call them out with your eyes closed. Powell’s presence in a flight suit is mostly a reminder that this isn’t Top Gun: Maverick, though you’d be forgiven for wishing Devotion had an ounce of that movie’s adrenaline.
Devotion’s time actually spent in planes feels brief compared to the amount of time characters talk about being in them, with a good chunk of the movie spent complaining about how difficult their F4U-4 Corsairs are to handle. Dillard does capture the difficulty of landing successfully on an aircraft carrier, however, with one specific sequence communicating the anxiety of having to park a plane on a relatively small moving target in the middle of an ocean. By that point we’ve spent enough time with Brown and Hudner that we want to see them succeed. Showing us the thin margin of error ratchets up the tension in ways the movie’s later, straightforward air missions do not.
Devotion was clearly made with respect for the people it portrays. However, it lacks the artistry to make it more than a dramatized history lesson. Devotion makes good use of its two leads, which in turn makes the revelation of its characters’ real-life bond genuinely touching. However, like so many other movies of its type, the end result feels morally simple and dramatically blah. This is a slightly better take on similar stories you’ve seen a million times, but that’s a low bar to clear, and one that a movie made in 2022 should be more willing (and able) to soar over.
Director: J. D. Dillard
Writer: Jake Crane, Jonathan Stewart
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Christina Jackson, Joe Jonas, Nick Hargrove, Spencer Neville, Thomas Sadoski
Release Date: November 23, 2022
Abby Olcese is an entertainment writer based in Kansas City. Her work has appeared at /Film, rogerebert.com, Crooked Marquee, Sojourners Magazine, and Think Christian. You can follow her adventures and pop culture obsessions at @abbyolcese.