In the same year that Top Gun: Maverick achieves an Oscar nomination, another film about navy airmen crash-lands onto Amazon Prime, making barely a ripple. Whereas TGM was a complete invention, Devotion is a more serious undertaking, based around real life hero, Jesse Brown. Brown was the first African-American aviator to complete the United States Navy basic training programme and was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. What’s more, his exploits largely took place in a confrontation that has been brushed under the carpet of history – The Korean War.
As portrayed by Jonathan Majors, Brown is a man weighed down by the responsibility of being a hero to so many people of colour – a man who, on a daily basis, hurls insults at his own reflection, based on all the racist abuse he’s encountered over the years, mostly from his fellow airmen. This strange ritual is overheard by Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), newly graduated from Flight Academy and chosen to work as Brown’s ‘wingman.’ (If Powell looks familiar, it’s because he enjoyed a similar role opposite Tom Cruise in TGM.)
Hudner soon comes to value Brown’s unconventional approach to flying, and he’s witness to the man’s evident devotion to his wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), and to their young daughter, Pam. When Daisy charges Hudner with the task of ‘being there for’ her husband, he takes the responsibility seriously.
The early stretches of the movie depict Brown and his fellow pilots training in state-of-the-art Corsair jet fighters for a war that might happen at any moment. We are witness to the men’s rivalries, their various triumphs and disasters – and theres also a sequence where, on leave in Cannes, Brown encounters Hollywood starlet, Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) and accepts her invitation to meet up at her favourite casino.
But it’s not until around the halfway mark, when the airmen are sent off for active service, that the film finally… ahem, takes flight. There are some impressive aerial battle sequences (which provide a decent test for the new projector we’ve bought for watching movies at home) and, if the film’s ending is somewhat downbeat, well, this is history. Unlike some recent ‘true stories’ we’ve witnessed, screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart stick rigorously to the facts. As the inevitable series of post-credit photographs attests, they have been pretty meticulous. The Elizabeth Taylor meeting? It actually happened.
Devotion is by no means a perfect film. I fail to learn enough about any of the other airmen in Brown’s crew to care much about what happens to them and, if I’m honest, all that rampant testosterone does get a little wearisome in places. What’s more, with a running time in excess of two hours, my patience is somewhat tested in the film’s meandering first half. But it’s worth sticking with for those soaring battle sequences which really do take you right into the heart of the action, and to learn about an important historical figure.
3. 5 stars