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Movie Review: 'Devotion' Delivers the Goods | Naval History Magazine – December 2022, Volume 36, Number 6 – USNI News

In screenwriting class, we are told to open with strong visual imagery that audiences will remember well after they leave the theater.
Devotion delivers.

A close-up view of the business end of a Grumman F8F running its 2,000-hp engine pulls back to reveal a flight line of Bearcats. Already at this point, you can tell that, clearly, Devotion is going to be an excellent movie.

The film tells the bittersweet story of two friends and shipmates: Lieutenant (j.g.) Tom Hudner and Ensign Jesse Brown. Hudner was a Massachusetts Yankee who graduated from Annapolis. Brown was a Mississippian who bootstrapped his way up to become the first black naval aviator. Despite their disparate backgrounds, they became friends in Fighting Squadron 32 (VF-32) in 1950.

The film is based on Adam Makos’ 2015 bestseller. Like all of Makos’ books, Devotion is immaculately researched to the extent of the author accompanying Hudner to North Korea in 2013, seeking information on Brown’s and other American graves.

Korea is often called “the forgotten war,” and the relatively sparse list of movies based on the conflict supports that claim. Devotion probably is the first English-language Korean War movie in 31 years.     

Hollywood produced at least 22 films during the 1950–53 war, with about 20 more through the end of the decade. Thirteen appeared in the ’60s; the farcical M*A*S*H* in 1970, with three more in the ’70s and ’80s. The previous Korean War movie was For the Boys (1991) with Bette Midler, peripherally involving Korea.

Twenty-two South Korean films are cited on Wikipedia, excluding one British title from 1956.

At least eight Chinese movies deal with the Korean conflict, including the enormously successful two-part Battle at Lake Changjin in 2021–22. Released for the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial (in just one of the movie’s egregious episodes, a Chinese uses a bazooka to down an F4U Corsair), the first installment grossed some $913 million worldwide, trailing only Spider Man’s $2 billion for movie releases that year.

A dozen films have dealt with Korean War aviation, most notably The Bridges at Toko-ri (1954) based on James Michener’s novella. It probably remains the best depiction of naval aviation at war, while other contemporary films included Flat Top (1952) and Men of the Fighting Lady (1954).

Devotion’s attention to detail is extraordinary: Hudner’s Corsair bears not only the correct squadron “modex” (K 205) but the correct serial number. The film’s Sikorsky HO5S helicopter has the number of an HO3S, the type actually flown in the rescue attempt. Probably the only other aviation film with similar minutiae was 1955’s The Dam Busters, featuring correct serials on some Royal Air Force Lancasters.
Devotion is unusually long: 138 minutes (2:18) including credits, whereas Tom Hanks’ Greyhound (2020) is the typical 90 minutes. Dunkirk (2017) was 105 minutes. While Devotion could be shorter, it seldom loses the viewer’s attention, but in nautical terms, hit the head before patronizing the gedunk. (For landlubbers: Visit the restroom before the snack bar en route to the movie.)

Director J. D. Dillard’s previous full-length films focused on black characters in difficult situations: a survivor stranded on an island (Sweetheart, 2019) and an urban youth trying to raise a sister (Sleight, 2016).

Jonathan Majors delivers an excellent, nuanced performance as Ensign Jesse Brown. Graduated from the Yale School of Drama, Majors portrays a young black man dealing with emotional dragons from prejudice throughout his life. But he finds acceptance in the meritocracy of naval aviation.

Christina Jackson is well cast as Daisy Brown, raising a daughter while her husband plies his trade, which takes him around the world to war.

Glen Powell plays Hudner after two previous naval aviation roles: John Glenn in Hidden Figures (2016) and Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin in Top Gun: Maverick (2022). Powell portrays Tom Hudner as I recall him—immediately likable with a strong, understated aura.
Thomas Sadoski is believable as VF-32’s Lieutenant Commander Richard Cevoli, balancing the needs of accomplishing the mission while striving to “bring everybody home.”

Character development meets a very high standard, as Majors and Powell just plain click on screen. Their friendship hits turbulence on occasion, but that’s all the more credible.

A not-so-minor character is the Vought F4U-4—fighting 32 transitions from Bearcats to Corsairs early in the film, creating a lurking presence that haunts some pilots, especially Brown, who eventually masters the difficult “U-bird.”  

Devotion rates high in portraying the squadron atmosphere, a distinct culture not limited to the ready room. Few Fighting 32 pilots had ever been shot at, a fact that skipper Cevoli addressed without being dramatic. The USS Leyte (CV-32) deployed to the Mediterranean in May 1950, and though the Korean War began in late June 1950, the film makes no mention until “Leading Leyte” departs Sixth Fleet in August. She began launching combat sorties in October.

In writing the relevant installment of Above and Beyond: The Aviation Medals of Honor (2001) I asked Captain Hudner for his thoughts. Contrary to every other account of the event, I did not plan to mention Brown’s race. Rather, he was a shipmate in dire trouble, and that was what mattered to VF-32. Tom Hudner agreed completely.

Brown was shot down on 4 December 1950, crash-landing behind enemy lines near the Chosin Reservoir. Hudner belly-flopped nearby, hoping to pull his friend from the wreck, but Brown was hopelessly pinned in the fuselage. A Marine helicopter flown by First Lieutenant Charles Ward arrived late that afternoon, but Hudner and Ward were unable to extract Brown, who lapsed into unconsciousness.
(Unaccountably, the movie sets the rescue effort at night, when in fact Ward took off with Hudner just before dark—a wise move given the circumstances.)

Four months later Tom Hudner received the Medal of Honor.

Landing signal officers (LSOs) are accurately depicted in the movie, contrasting with Robert Strauss’ comic-relief “Beer Barrel” in Toko-ri. Knowledgeable viewers will appreciate the LSO’s “panic low” signal just before a ramp strike. Suffice it  to say that in perhaps the world’s most demanding profession, perfection is merely graded “OK.” Moviegoers can be confident that Devotion rates an OK-3.
Technical glitches are few. The most notable is depiction of the carrier landing approach—always shown as straight in, lowering wheels, flaps and tailhook on a long “final” rather than the rectangular pattern around the ship.

A nonexistent MiG encounter enlivens the action, with Brown eluding the enemy jet in the now-obligatory “Star Wars canyon” chase. Not to worry: The screen Hudner blows the Soviet fighter out of the sky with a superb deflection shot.
The film takes liberties with the book’s description of the world’s most glamorous movie star, but Serinda Swan’s Elizabeth Taylor is well suited to the Riviera, where she visits with Navy personnel during Leyte’s port call.

The sound mix can be uncomfortably loud with concussive theater effects. Hollywood has gone all-in for heavy audio, notably 2017’s Dunkirk, which was so oppressive that it seemed to drive some patrons from the theater.

When the History Channel shot the Dogfights series in 2006–07 the computer graphics artist predicted near-photo reality in ten years. He was not far off. Devotion’s CGI is superior, sometimes approaching perfection. CGI is well integrated with the film’s 11-plane air force including two Bearcats, four Corsairs, a Douglas Skyraider, helicopter, and photo aircraft.

Charlie Ward died in a vehicle accident after retirement, and Tom Hudner passed away in 2017 at the age of 93. Devotion offers a fine tribute to them, Jesse Brown, and their friends.
Mr. Tillman, the Naval History 2019 Author of the Year, is a seven-time Naval Institute Press author with more than 40 books and nearly 800 articles to his credit.
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