Review: Devotion



Ground control to Majors

In the early 1950s black pilot Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) enters a programme for fighter aircraft, struggling against racial discrimination and the high expectations placed on trainees. As he faces issues with his relationship with wingman Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) Brown is flung into action upon the beginning of the Korean War, facing the ultimate test of his ability and determination to triumph through adversity.

It’s only fair to say that my opinions of a film like Devotion have to be prefaced by an acknowledgment that I am not in a position to fully appreciate the depth of its message or the true extent of its meaning when it comes to the depiction of a key trailblazer for the cause of POC in the United States military. I’m not black, American or have military experience, and I have to take all of that into account. Please keep that in mind when I say that Devotion at different points both intrigued me but also failed to really resonate with me across the board: I suspect that I just don’t have the life experience to fully recognise what is is trying to say.

To hopefully put it a bit clearer, this is far from the first film to try and put a showcase on how African-Americans were able to break into key combat roles within the United Stats military. Cuba Gooding Jr’s Men Of Honor springs to mind immediately, and that was undoubtedly an inspiration here (one part of the script, where Majors’ Brown describes bailout training, sounds almost like a description of some of that other film’s critical scenes) but there’s also things like Red Tails or Miracle At St. Anna. That is to say that this kind of story has been told many times in the not too distant past, and as such is inevitably going to be compared to them. In that regard I found that there was little in the message of Devotion that I had not heard or seen before. That is not to say that the message was unworthy: any depiction of the battle against racial discrimination cannot be considered so. But there is a sense of sameness in the approach, right down to the expected plot beats. I suppose I could compare it to my previous thoughts on the idea of the “standing ovation” biopic, in that the kind of narrative that Devotion wants to tell is one that, from a strictly artistic point of view, is too predictable for its own good.

To wit: Brown is a black man attempting to do a job previously regarded as one strictly for whites only; he finds both allies and enemies amid the personalities of the service; he has the support of a wife and family back home who suffer their own discrimination; he proves himself in training then gets called to war; he triumphs dispute adversity, and leaves a lasting legacy for others to follow in his wake. Devotion hits all of these points as you would expect it too, filling in some of the gaps with some action scenes that would probably get more attention in a time when Top Gun: Maverick hadn’t stolen its thunder.

The moments when Devotion impresses me is when it veers away from this boilerplate and sometimes attempts to give us something more. Specifically I talk of those moments when Majors; Brown confronts other peoples expectations of how he should act or feel as a black man in his position, specifically Powell’s Hudner. Hudner is nominally one of the good ones, who goes out of his way to be Brown’s friend, to defend him from racist taunts and to generally act as if his skin colour is of no consequence. But of course such forced solidarity, for lack of a better phrase, is itself something of a problem: the best scene in the film from a character perspective is when Brown tells Hudner to simply be his friend, ie, not his white friend (the relationship between the two characters could do with more elsewhere though, especially given the nature of the historically accurate conclusion). Another good example is Brown’s struggle with being a self-evident inspiration to other members of the black community, specifically the lower-ranked members of the ship he ends up being stationed on: Brown does not want to be such an inspiration, and the recognition that this is both out of control and in some ways another burden he is obligated to carry is also quite affecting.

Majors in no way gives a bad performance – repeated scenes where his character berates himself in the mirror using racial epithets is especially striking – and is at his very best when portraying a mix of contrasting emotions in such moments as I have described. He’s as good here as he was in Da 5 Bloods or The Harder They Fall, better even. but I just wish that he had been given the chance to deliver more of that kind of movie rather than this fairly rote narrative of an underdog fighter pilot who makes the successful trench run to blow up the Death Star. And no, that isn’t just a clumsy analogy, there is a moment depicted in Devotion that matches up to those beats pretty closely: director J.D. Dillard is on record as being heavily influenced by Star Wars.

It’s shot well – Dillard should have plenty of experience, being the son of a naval pilot – sounds good – composer Chanda Dancy gives and understated but compelling backing – and while the supporting cast doesn’t really have a whole lot to do there isn’t really a bad shift anywhere. But I struggled with Devotion: I’ve seen this story too many times in different guises for this by-the-numbers portrayal to reel me in. It might be tawdry to say, but the film badly needs a better hook than what it has. The counter-argument is probably that stories centred around white soldiers performing deeds of daring-do are far more dime-a-dozen, and you would be right. But this is specifically about war stories mixed with the resistance to racial prejudice that I am talking about and, in that regard, Devotion just didn’t do it for me. At the same time it is not a bad movie, and can certainly be considered a diverting two hours if nothing else. For that, it’s partly recommended.

(All images are copyright of Amazon Prime).

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1 Response to Review: Devotion

  1. Pingback: Review – Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania | Never Felt Better

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