TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Devotion is based on the true story of Jesse Brown, the first African-American pilot to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. But the title could equally apply to Brown’s wingman, Thomas Hudner Jr., who received the Medal of Honor. Or it could refer to any of the incredible stories of the sacrifices people will make because of the bonds of friendship in wartime.
The events take place during the Korean War, and partly because of what happens, this isn’t the easiest story to adapt from the book by Adam Makos. Still, director J.D. Dillard along with screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart, do a good job of staying fairly true to the actual historical events and finding realistic action and drama within these loose constraints. The interesting thing is the dual conflicts at play, as Jesse (Jonathan Majors) and Tom (Glen Powell), who are sent on a dangerous mission, must contend with the opposing nation’s forces as well as issues from within their own ranks.
“…Jesse Brown, the first African-American pilot to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training…”
The temptation in many biopics is to play fast and loose with the details, make things more heroic, and amp up the drama. In Devotion, a few liberties were taken to make the events better conform to a narrative, but the basic core of the man and the history are intact. For example, in interviews, Jesse Brown said that, by and large, his superior officers and colleagues were professional and supportive of him. Sure we get a sense of some of the barriers and racism he faced, but these are in the form of brawls with drunken sailors, not being served, and the like. No made-up officer is giving him bullshit orders out of racism, and that is refreshing and feels more authentic than Hollywoodized.
There is one old trope that the filmmaker indulged in, a staple of military movies — the soldier who violates direct orders to do the right thing. This is a cheap way to amp up the drama and simultaneously show heroism, but it usually takes me out of a film. Here though, at least the second time it happens, it is based on real events that I won’t spoil. So that one isn’t an invention — it is an actual instance of real-life drama and heroism. The first time someone disobeys orders may well be an embellishment, but it is such a beautiful parallel setup to the finale that I think it is worth it.
"…the best way to honor these real-life heroes is with a light touch..."