Devotion Toronto Review: Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell Are The Original Top Guns In Korean War Portrait Of The First Black Navy Pilot.

Director  JD Dillard says he grew up hearing all about his own father’s  experiences as the second African American Blues Angels pilot, so naturally when Adam Makos’ book, Devotion came out he was instantly intrigued about adapting to the screen. The book tells the story of the friendship and, yes, devotion (where the title comes from in part) of two elite US Navy fighter pilots who made a big difference in one of the Korean War’s most intense battles in the early 1950’s.  But the story has great significance as it really tells the extraordinary tale of Jesse Brown who became the first Black  aviator in Navy history, and together with his unique friendship and working relationship with Tom Hudner the pair became legend as authentic Navy wingmen heroes.

Coming just a few months after the gigantic success of Top Gun Maverick, this Sony Pictures release which just had its World Premiere tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival, is an earnest and sometimes stirring aerial war epic that may not quite soar to those heights (what could?) but in keeping its focus on Brown, the racism he experienced, and other aspects of his life, personally and in the air, this is a story that marches to its own beat despite the inevitable comparisons people will make.  The success of the Tom Cruise film in fact may make a difference in getting audiences out to see this one as well.

Jonathan Majors plays Brown and he is excellent in the role, showing the sacrifice he made for his family and country, the obstacles he faced, and the genuine camraderie he had with a mensch by the name of Tom Hudner who happens to be played by Glen Powell who as it turns out also had a significant role in Top Gun Maverick, furthering the link between the two 2022 releases. Powell in fact first discovered the book and got the ball rolling, and he has an Executive Producer credit as well.

The title Devotion is just that as it is key for wingmen to have that kind of devotion to their partner, but this movie also has some moving scenes with Brown and his wife (Christina Jackson), the fear of being separated and perhaps never seeing each other again as he takes off on duty. The loneliness and frustration for Brown of being the only Black pilot in the navy is also explored, but he stands out for other reasons among the white hot shot pilots and that is his own unique flying style and abilities, demonstrated early on when the pilots compete to be part of the front lines of the Navy Pilots who here are sent on a deadly mission, a key one in the Korean War.  That is where Dillard gets to stage some edge-of-your-seat aerial stunts and battles, but remember this is 1950, not the Top Gun universe that saw flashier planes and abilities. These were pioneers by comparison.

I also really liked some of the lighter scenes here, particularly when Brown , Hudner and buddies get some time off to go to Cannes where the film festival happens to be taking place.  Here also racism rears its ugly head, but Brown really triumphs with a chance meeting with Liz Taylor and an invite by her to join her that night at the Casino, something his buddies are flabberghasted by. It is fun to watch, and clearly Majors, getting also to spout perfect French, enjoys playing it and destroying stereotypes of the period.

However the most gut wrenching moments come when his plane goes down in battle and he can’t shake loose of it. This is where the friendship between Tom and Jesse is shown at its finest, but most harrowing as Tom risks everything to rescue Jesse. Both actors, Powell and Majors, deliver on the emotional aspects that likely won’t leave a dry eye in the house.

The acting is uniformly fine all around, but this is ultimately a film that belongs to Majors who delivers one of his finest performances. Thomas Sadoski as Dick Cevoli and Joe Jonas as Marty Goode both have their moments as well. Of course Powell, as his second Navy fighter pilot of the year, fits the role like a glove but also brings some edge to it.  The script is by Jake Crane and Jonathan A. H. Stewart, it doesn’t break new ground in the genre but serves the characters and Brown’s inspiring story.  Chanda Dancy’s score soars as well as the planes.

Producers are Molly Smith , Rachel Smith, Thad Luckinbilll , and Trent Luckinbill for the Black Label Media production which will be released by Sony in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.

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