With ‘Devotion,’ an homage to friendship that shows many sides of heroism

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
Eli Ade/Columbia Pictures-Sony/AP
Actors (from left) Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Thomas Sadoski, Nick Hargrove, Daren Kagasoff, Joe Jonas, and Spencer Neville play naval aviators in the new film “Devotion.”

“Devotion,” a new movie about U.S. naval pilots, has a well-timed release. It’s primed to ride on the coattails – or contrails – of “Top Gun: Maverick.” 

Both films share facile similarities: bombing missions in foreign countries, aerial dog fights in twisty canyons, actor Glen Powell playing a hotshot pilot. But the differences are striking. “Devotion” is based on a true story. Set during the Korean War, it’s about the interracial friendship between the Navy’s first Black aviator, Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), and his wingman Tom Hudner (Powell). The biggest contrast between the two movies? “Top Gun” focuses on bravery, while “Devotion” focuses on courage. 

Ensign Brown’s supportive wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), tells him he belongs in the sky. Yet it’s hard for her husband to soar when each flight is laden with a weight of expectation. His first attempt at landing a Vought F4U Corsair on an aircraft carrier draws a crowd of onlookers. The ship’s Black crew members emerge from below decks to watch. A white pilot sneers, “It’s like they want to see Jackie Robinson steal home.” When the camera zooms inside the cockpit, we discover that Brown is wide-eyed, sweating, and gripping the controls. 

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With “Devotion,” a Black filmmaker pays homage to his father and to a historical friendship that shows the many sides of heroism.

What terrifies Brown more than missing his landing is that others will see through his stoicism. As he begins to trust Hudner, who’s kind and nonjudgmental, he opens up about his past.

“The swim test in flight school – they made me do it 10 times,” Brown tells his wingman. “They dumped ice in the water, put weights in my flight suit. But every time, I made it out. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me to give up, quit.”

Unlike “Top Gun,” the overlong “Devotion” doesn’t feel the need for speed. The war scenes only arrive late in the story, which is based on the book “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice” by Adam Makos. The payoff is that director J.D. Dillard, whose father was a Black naval flight officer, creates compelling aerial combat sequences. 

Eli Ade/Columbia Pictures-Sony/AP
Jonathan Majors (left) and Glen Powell star as Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first Black aviator, and his wingman, Tom Hudner, in “Devotion.”

Ultimately, though, the most gripping battle scenes are internal. Mark Twain once observed, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” In an attempt to face down his self-doubt, Brown stares at a mirror, tears slaloming down his cheeks, and motivates himself by reciting all the racist taunts he’s endured over the years. 

Hudner, meanwhile, has never truly risked anything difficult for his friend. The wingman embodies gung-ho bravery. But upon successfully completing a daring mission, he discovers that it’s left him feeling empty. What, then, is he fighting for?

“The real battle in all of life is being someone people can count on,” a wise commanding officer counsels Hudner. “The most important thing is this: We bring everyone home.”

Not everyone makes it out alive. But the one thing “Devotion” does bring home is the true meaning of courage.

“Devotion” is rated PG-13 for strong language, some war action/violence, and smoking. 

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