Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell fly High in True Story of Korean War Fighter Pilots
DIRECTED BY J.D. DILLARD/2022
It could be said that Lt. Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) is the rightful main character of this year’s inexplicably huge hit Top Gun: Maverick. Alas, the previous generation didn’t bother to get out of the way, and a version of history repeated itself. That high-flying remake of sorts has scored to the tune of nearly $1.5 billion globally and climbing. So, if movie audiences are so keen for familiar fighter-pilot yarns with Glen Powell, it stands to reason that the new Korean War-set film Devotion ought to massively ignite the box office all over again. It won’t, but it stands to reason, nonetheless.
Devotion, right down to its terrible nondescript title, may not appear to be anything noteworthy. Going in, I certainly had low expectations. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise that the film unspooled with the ace charisma and craftsmanship that’s on display throughout. With its warmly old-fashioned sensibility of service and brotherhood realized through a contemporary sheen, as well as several scenes of impressively practical airborne action, Devotion is something of a breath of fresh oceanic air. Walking out of the screening, I remarked, “Give this director (J.D. Dillard) a Star Wars already!” Little did I know then that Dillard was indeed lined up to helm an outing in that galaxy far, far away, but has reported that the opportunity has crashed and burned. With Star Wars– a saga of second chances, among other things- no one is ever truly gone.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the lead character of Devotion and the first African American aviator for the U.S. Navy. Future Marvel Studios threat de jour Jonathan Majors sturdily anchors the man’s mid-century-set story while Powell (also an executive producer for the project) lands well as his best friend and fellow flyer Tom Hudner. Another cohort, Marty Goode, is played by recording star Joe Jonas. Thomas Sadoski is their unit’s sympathetic captain Dick Cevoli who recognizes the formidable skills of Brown. When they’re all deployed for service aboard an aircraft carrier amid the Korean conflict, his top concern is that everyone makes it home alive. This, though, is not that story.
In recreating the seventy-years-ago past, Dillard goes all in with a pervasive aesthetic of grey/greenish blue interiors and sun-gleamed clear-skied exteriors. The color palette is so controlled (nary a glimpse of red is ever seen) that Devotion almost registers as a black and white movie. It does go vivid for a great little shore leave sequence in which the guys cross paths with none other than superstar Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan), whose concurrent coverage by Life magazine photographers assures our men in uniform a certain cultural cache going forward. A night of dancing, gambling, and flirting with Liz follows at her insistence. Soon enough, it will be back to the air.
Devotion, though occasionally marred by infringing contemporary sensibilities (a fellow African American naval man encouragingly approaches Brown to let him know that “the other brothers and I… we see you”. It was not easy being a Black man in the 1950s, particularly in an all-white unit. But, come on…!), is a fully satisfying throwback that is, at times, quite striking on the big screen. Providing the lack of Tom Cruise-fueled nostalgia doesn’t keep Devotion grounded, Jesse Brown’s story of sacrifice and service should strike multigenerational chords and zip across color barriers. This is one danger zone that was real.