Before there was a Top Gun, there was Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner. Brown held the distinction of being the first Black aviator to complete the navy’s flight training program, serving in the Korean war with Hudner as his trusty wingman. But in Devotion, director JD Dillard’s screen dramatization of their time in uniform, the decorated flyboys and their brothers-in-arms of the Fighting 32nd lack the cocksure jockishness flexed by Maverick and his cohort. Despite the superficial similarities to the dogfighting bonanza of the summer (and shooting in what could be the exact same patch of tundra for the identical emotional climaxes), this polished double biopic distinguishes itself with a solemnity and stillness in the moments between missions. Training its crosshair on the ingrained prejudice of the military and the question of how well-meaning white allies can best support its undoing, the film compensates for relatively middling action set pieces with a stolid maturity. Except for the part where Joe Jonas tries to score with Elizabeth Taylor.
The guys’ waggish detour to a Croisette casino with the crown jewel of Hollywood’s golden-agers (played by Serrinda Swan, a serviceable lookalike) is as rowdy as it gets, anomalous to the stiff-lipped snap-and-salute tone. (It’s also one in a handful of scenes that could be easily trimmed to get a 138-minute runtime in fighting shape.) From the first meeting between Lnt Hudner (Glen Powell, looking every bit the naval officer Ken doll he did in the Top Gun sequel) and Ensign Brown (Jonathan Major), there’s a tentativeness in their bonding that goes beyond the usually gradual nature of the process. The difference in their races hangs over every scene they share, though the issue isn’t any bigotry on Hudner’s part. Quite the opposite – he’s all too insistent about sticking up for a perfectly capable adult who wants nothing more than to be treated like anyone else.
Brown encounters discrimination everywhere he goes, whether from bartenders refusing to serve him or drunken louts trotting out the laziest slurs they’ve got. While he’s gotten good at turning the other cheek as demanded by a white-dominated society, he can’t deny the accumulated pain in his more intimate moments. A shaken yet determined Majors gets a chance to show his range in the private baring of his weariness, as in his ritualistic repeating of past invective hurled at him or the recounting of a swim test stacked against him that he nonetheless passed. Hudner takes it upon himself to defend his buddy, just as he’d want done for himself, oblivious that slugging strangers and filing special reports only brings unwanted attention to a Black man who’d rather fly under the radar than give tokenistic quotes to reporters from Time magazine. And maybe it only seems like it because he gets the final beat, but Hudner’s slow enlightenment about the difference between performative solidarity and true showing up turns into the core substance of a film ostensibly focused on tribute to a pioneering African American.
Their hard-earned friendship makes for an inspiring profile in camaraderie, even when packaged in simplistic morals. Brown’s wife (Christina Jackson) plays a thankless role that could have been scripted for her in checklist form: provide warm familial memory to sustain husband, express concern over risks he takes, weep in his absence, deliver clueless Caucasian’s lesson to be there when needed instead of leaping to provide aid out of pity. Jackson does it all with poise and a sensuality that shows us why she goes so well with her soft-spoken, strait-laced spouse. “It’s important to know who you’re flying with,” Hudner tells her in a visit to his partner’s home before they ship out. Jake Crane and Jonathan A Stewart’s screenplay abides by that maxim, more invested in the grounded portrayal of these men and their relationships than their exploits in the sky.
Sturdy if unexceptional, this prime cut of dad-bait hangs on the performances of Majors and Powell, two abundantly charming men hamstrung by straightforward material. The latter has an all-American face that looks like privilege made flesh, full of prep school educations and rugby trophies and summers on the compound. He’s an apt counterpoint to Majors, sculpted for a stoicism rooted not in masculine repression, but in carefully maintained control over anger. His whole life, he’s had to work twice as hard to get half as far, a trite biopic standby that Majors does his best to redeem with stifled frustration and exhaustion. Military men down to their bones, Brown and Hudner both put on a brave facade as they respectively wrestle with external hardship and self-imposed guilt, stowing their angst under a plain appearance. Dillard attempts to do the same with his unadorned point-and-shoot direction. He, however, has nothing richer lying underneath the placid surface.
Devotion is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 23 November