BY DAVID CANFIELD
SEPTEMBER 12, 2022
Majors plays the U.S. Navy’s first-ever Black aviator in the smart film from J.D. Dillard—which also finds Glen Powell back in the pilot’s seat post-Top Gun: Maverick.
Forget the epic aerial cinematography and claustrophobic plane sequences, the real reason to watch Devotion in IMAX is Jonathan Majors’s face. The Emmy-nominated actor (Lovecraft Country) gets a scene early on in which his character Jesse Brown, based on the true story of the U.S. Navy’s first-ever Black aviator, addresses himself in the mirror with the vile, racist comments he’s heard his entire life. He writes each one down in a notebook, then confronts them regularly, head-on. Here’s a man at war with himself, battling the hatred of the world around him. The fury, the despair, and the strength on Majors’s face, projected on a giant screen without a cut, is grand enough to feel life-and-death.
Devotion, in that regard, seems somewhat curious for a film backed and distributed by a Hollywood giant in Sony Pictures. (It releases theatrically on November 23.) Early marketing would tell diehard Top Gun: Maverick fans that they’re in for a encore here, and to an extent, sure, J.D. Dillard’s brawny biopic scratches that fighter-pilot itch with panache. But until its high-wire final act, Devotion, which premiered Monday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, plays like a relatively intimate drama. Between the beats you’d expect of any war movie—the leaving home, the male bonding, the ultimate sacrifice—Dillard and screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan A. Stewart sketch out a more thematically rich, if less riveting, character study.
We meet Brown as, naturally, the only one in the room. The Korean War is heating up, fresh off of WWII, and he’s been welcomed among the Navy pilots bound to fight there on the basis of talent and reputation alone. All eyes are immediately on him; as he and the rest of the group—most notably Lieutenant Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, doing double-pilot duty post-Maverick)—inch closer toward fighting in the war, Brown is treated like everything from a Navy prop to an unwelcome mascot. The film deftly imbues combat-movie clichés with an understanding of what it means for a Black pilot—the first, in fact—to drive the action. His first flying sequence, for instance, finds Brown’s colleagues watching him in awe and terror, holding their breath for him to land safely; but one vivid shot captures a group of Black sailors standing together, in a kind of nervous pride. His doing this means a great deal to them, and his doing it right would mean even more.
Which, of course, he does; Brown and Hudner are credited with changing the course of the Korean War on a dangerous mission. (I’ll avoid spoilers as to how.) Devotion takes its hero’s abilities somewhat at face value. He is a one-in-a-generation pilot, his only limitation being the racism of the time. Dillard wisely acknowledges the period’s realities without letting them define Brown; we instead meet a man who’s learned how to navigate the system and forge ahead. He does not drink. He calmly stands up for himself. He lets his abilities speak for themselves. But he does not always do what he’s told—because he’s learned, as a Black man who grew up in Jim Crow America, that he can’t always do as he’s told. The deck is stacked against him.
Devotion’s contours remain fairly conventional and, plot-wise, unsurprising; you need a great actor to sell such a tough, complex portrait within that. Fortunately, Majors works wonders with genre—the horror fantasies of Lovecraft Country, the Western gunslinging of The Harder They Fall. He knows how to take the familiar and make it his own. And he’s never felt like more of a star. In Devotion, he brings that effortless swagger, that charismatic ferocity to hold the thing together. The heartbreak skirting the edges of his performance only adds more dimension. (Kudos to Powell, too, for finding nuances in a different kind of role from his Maverick hotshot.)
Because Devotion can’t fully commit as a thorny character drama—this is, after all, a studio movie that must end with plenty of fighter-pilot fireworks—the broader scope of the film can feel slight. The script takes a lengthy Cannes detour for a party at a casino with Elizabeth Taylor (played by Serinda Swan), which doesn’t center Brown; scenes of the pilots out on the town, bonding and drinking, are dulled in comparison to the strong chemistry between Majors and Powell, since it’s so much more fully realized than what we see among the larger group. (Though Joe Jonas, as one such pilot, shines in a few short, funny moments.) Devotion can’t quite bridge Brown’s story with that of Korean-War-era pilots at large, and so it oscillates in tone between the two—admirably, if not always elegantly.
It sticks the landing, in any case. That climactic aerial sequence, lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Mank) and aerial D.P. Michael FitzMaurice, gets the blood pumping, as it must, and generates those life-and-death stakes with palpable suspense. The final scenes that follow are moving. You still wish that the film would fight its formula as much as it does earlier on.
Devotion is thoroughly well-executed, but it’s rousing when Majors gets to play outside the box and show you something new. And so, as the credits rolled, I thought of the quote one pilot gives following a successful mission, speaking to the ambivalence that can surface after all is said and done. He calls this feeling “the mundanity of a job well-done.” Devotion leaves you with that, in a sense, but at its best is so much more.
Source: VANITY FAIR