Producers: Molly Smith, Rachel Smith, Thad Luckinbill and Trent Luckinbill Director: J.D. Dillard Screenplay: Jake Crane and Jonathan A.H. Stewart Cast: Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Christina Jackson, Thomas Sadoski, Joe Jonas, Daren Kagasoff, Nick Hargrove, Spencer Neville, Joseph Cross, Sean Kelley and Serinda Swan Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures
Calling “Devotion” hokey would give hokiness a bad name; based on a 2015 book by Adam Makos, it’s a wartime drama set in 1950 that might have been made then. The script is loaded with clichéd scenes and corny dialogue; the direction is pedestrian; and most of the performances are bland. Even the action sequences—mostly of aerial training and combat—lack the excitement they’re intended to engender. The result is a film that’s epic in its ambition (and length) but curiously muted and hackneyed in execution.
But there is one major element that stands out: its focus on Jesse L. Brown, the first black pilot in the U.S. Navy. That biographical element gives “Devotion,” however unremarkable it might be overall, an inspirational component that can’t help but carry an emotional pull, especially since Brown is played by Jonathan Majors with great authority and dignity.
The film does not cover Brown’s career in full, alluding to his struggle to rise from an impoverished background to acceptance as a naval aviator only through later periodic references. The actual narrative is confined to 1950, with him already an ensign in a naval squadron on the USS Carrier Leyte. He’s introduced when Lt. Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) arrives on board to join the squadron, becoming his wingman. Only gradually are his relationships with the other members of the squad—pilots Marty Goode (Joe Jonas), Bill Koenig (Daren Kagasoff), Carol Mohring (Nick Hargrove) and Bo Lavery (Spencer Neville), along with their executive officer Dick Cevoli (Thomas Sadoski)—as well as his loving marriage to Daisy (Christina Jackson), made clear, as are the tense, hostile feelings of some of the servicemen on the carrier about his presence.
The film’s concentration is, however, on the development of the friendship between Brown and Hudner as they’re introduced to a new plane, the Corsair, which they must master. Then they’re ordered to the Mediterranean to prepare for possible retaliation against Russian provocations, during which deployment they meet Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) during shore leave on the French Riviera—a sequence that’s highly embellished here, the actual meeting having been far less elaborate.
The sojourn in the Mediterranean is abruptly ended when the Leyte is ordered to the Korean peninsula, where troops from the communist north have invaded the south and the U.S. has become involved in the conflict. Three squadron operations during the fall and winter are depicted at length: a sortie to bomb two bridges that would allow Chinese forces to enter Korea in force; a mission to soften Chinese resistance to a Marine advance; and an attempt to rescue Brown, trapped in the wreckage of his Corsair when he was forced to crash-land behind enemy lines after being struck by antiaircraft fire. In the first Brown is portrayed as instrumental in rendering the bridges impassable, and in the latter Hudner and his comrades risk their own lives in a futile effort to save Brown or, when that becomes impossible, retrieve his body.
As in virtually all such war films based on actual events, changes are made for dramatic effect. The episode with Elizabeth Taylor is a major example, but there are further liberties taken, both large and small. Even when the script sticks quite closely to the facts, however, the execution is often flawed. When Mohring crashes into the sea trying to negotiate a test landing on the Leyte, for instance, the staging and editing (by Billy Fox) are so lackadaisical that one is left wondering whether the disaster was intentional: the pilot is repeatedly shown nonchalantly gazing around his field of vision while persistently ignoring instructions to rectify his approach. And while the combat scenes in Korea are adequately managed by the effects team, they fail to set the pulse racing, despite the best efforts of Fox and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. (It must be said, though, that the latter’s surname is certainly appropriate in a film about aircraft.) Similarly, while Wynn Thomas’ production design and Deirdra Elizabeth Govan’s costumes are in period style, as in so many pictures they lack the lived-in look that would be fully convincing. Chandra Dancy’s music unimaginatively employs the usual tropes in the scores of such tales—no soaring Jerry Goldsmith “Blue Max”-style exhilaration here—and some pop songs are interpolated to generate an early fifties feel.
Worst of all, apart from Majors the cast is lackluster, with Powell’s soporific turn particularly deadening. Those playing the other members of the squadron try to invigorate things, but like even Majors and Jackson they’re hobbled by dialogue that sounds as though it’s been lifted from a mediocre 1940s World War II picture, and by J.D. Dillard’s sluggish direction. It’s a far cry from the energy, and insight, that Robert Altman brought to the Korean conflict in “M*A*S*H.”
“Devotion” is an earnest effort to celebrate the heroism and tragedy that marked the life of Ensign Jesse Brown. But he deserves more than earnestness, and this film doesn’t deliver it.