We’ve all seen war movies before. We’ve all seen films tackling discrimination before, too. Director J.D. Dillard is very well aware of this, and that’s exactly why “Devotion” succeeds.
Rather than attempting to “solve racism” over the course of its 138-minute runtime, the Korean War drama narrows its focus to the story of a single man and his, yes, devotion to many things – country, brotherhood and family.
The nuanced approach Dillard takes to storytelling, combined with knockout performances by its core cast, elevates “Devotion” from standard war movie fanfare to a film that actually has something to say, and one that packs an emotional gut punch in its finale.
Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) is the first Black aviator in U.S. Navy history. “Devotion” isn’t the story of how Jesse earns his wings and overcomes discrimination to become the iconic pilot, instead he’s already well-established by the time we meet him. When Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) becomes Jesse’s new wingman as the crew deploys to the Korean border, the two men learn what it means to show up for each other every single day.
At its core, “Devotion” is a movie about allyship. Time and time again Tom goes out of his way to try and prove his loyalty to Jesse, standing up for him in the face of discrimination. All the while, what Jesse really wants – and needs – is much simpler: trust and dependability. Jesse doesn’t need Tom to pick fights for him or stand up to bullies, Jesse just needs to know that he won’t have to doubt Tom’s loyalty on a daily basis due to the color of his skin.
Over the course of its runtime, “Devotion” spends far more time diving into the friendship and dynamic between these two men than it does with flashy aerial dogfights or war sequences. Majors delivers an emotionally captivating performance, balancing his hardened exterior, inner self-doubt, and tender heart at home. Powell holds his own against Majors, bringing his signature charm and charisma to the screen.
The film’s first act is its weakest, spent stateside in Rhode Island as the men train and prepare for deployment. As we ease into the movie, the exposition feels rushed and disjointed, jumping from event to event without giving time for audiences to acclimate. Summing up a man’s life in two hours and change is no easy task, and Dillard admitted hard cuts had to be made, but once the crew ships out and we get to the story Dillard truly wanted to tell, things pick up and never look back. One highlight of the first act, however, is Christina Jackson, who plays Jesse’s wife, Daisy. Jackson brings an emotional weight to the screen as Jesse’s devoted partner, reminding both him and the audience what it is that’s at stake for the pilot.
In a year in which “Top Gun: Maverick” is dominating the box office and putting fighter pilots front and center on the big screen, it’s impossible not to compare the two films – particularly when Glen Powell is starring in both. While the similarities are certainly there, “Devotion” feels far more grounded and focused on relationships rather than spectacle. Plus, when Dillard initially signed on to direct in 2019, “Maverick” was set to release just a few months later. Here we are three years later.
Thanks to Dillard’s nuanced approach to storytelling, “Devotion” is elevated beyond the standard war drama blueprint with skillful direction, strong emotional source material and stellar performances.
“Devotion” releases in theaters November 23, 2022.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.