Aviation war movies seldom come our way. (I’m not including movies like “Spitfire Over Berlin”). But in 2022, we have been blessed with two major aviation movies. Both used real planes. Both have amazing combat scenes. Both star Glen Powell. Both used Kevin LaRosa to coordinate the stunt flying. But only one of them is a true story and has realistic combat scenes. That movie is “Devotion”. It is based on the book “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice” by Adam Makos. It was published in 2015. Glen Powell read the book and pushed for it to be made into a movie. The movie was directed by J.D. Dillard. It was his third movie. The project was personal to Dillard because his father was a black naval aviator. His dad was on set as a technical adviser. Powell was able to visit Thomas Hudner before he passed away in 2017. He was impressed by the number of photos and mementos of Jesse Brown were in his home. The movie used several F4U Corsairs, a Skyraider, 2 Bearcats, a HO5S-1 helicopter, and a MiG-15.
The movie skips the usual enlisting
and training scenes. In fact, it is
Hudner who arrives as the new guy. He
meets Brown (Jonathan Majors) and in a role reversal, it is Brown who is standoffish. Brown is part of a group of five who all
respect him. There is no racist in the
group. Brown takes Hudner up to break him
in and tells him “try to keep up”. Brown
puts their Bearcats through some thrilling aerobatics. Soon, they discard their Bearcats for F4U
Corsairs. The fighter is called the “widow-maker”
because it is difficult to fly. One of
the core group is eliminated. Then it’s off
to the Mediterranean because the Soviets have been saber-rattling. Shore leave on the Riviera includes a meeting
with Elizabeth Taylor and an invite to a casino. This results in the usual “we don’t want your
kind in here” and the obligatory fight in a bar. By this time Hudner and Brown have bonded and
are wingmates. Hudner promises Brown’s
wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) that he will protect Jesse. Foreshadowing. The Korean War breaks out and the USS Leyte
is sent. Their squadron takes off to
support an attack on two bridges. There
is also a “Top Gun” style dogfight with a MiG.
When the Chinese onslaught occurs, the Corsairs are used for ground
support for the Marines surrounded in the Chosin Reservoir. One of those missions is going to result in a
Medal of Honor.
When I first saw commercials for this movie, I had a fear that the title indicated it was going to be one of those movies that are religious. I was surprised to find that religion plays no role in the film. Second, I was concerned about the CGI. It turns out that the movie eschews computer generated images for the aviation scenes. The vintage fighters are beautiful in action. If you love fighter planes, you will enjoy this movie. Third, it seemed logical that the main theme would be the racism Brown had to overcome. Very surprisingly, the racism card is underplayed. Brown alludes to racism in his becoming the first black pilot in the Navy, but the movie uses only the Riviera scenes to check that box. He encounters no problems on the Leyte. In fact, he has the support of a number of black sailors. This movie is not “Tuskegee Airmen” or “Men of Honor”. The film’s main theme is friendship. It is strong in this area. Hudner does not have to overcome racist views to befriend Brown. Instead, the tension is in their relationship comes from different views toward following orders. Hudner is a rules follower and Brown believes in taking the initiative. But this difference of opinion is barely a bump in the road. Ironically, it is Hudner who does something that he could have been court-martialed for. Chalk that up to devotion.
The movie is medium budget, but
wisely a good chunk of the money went to facilitating Kevin LaRusa’s
aerobatics. They rival those of those of
the “Top Guns”. There’s little of the
defying of the laws of physics like you see in most CGI aviation movies. There are four quality scenes: the follow me flight, the hard to land crisis,
the bridge attack, and the ground support scene. All are well-done and exciting. The scenes in between do a good job developing
the two relationships: Brown/Hudner and
Jesse/Daisy. The movie avoids melodrama and
both couples have some chemistry
Most of the cast is unknowns, but the two leads are recognizable. Powell and Majors are excellent and Thomas Sadoski is great as their squadron commander. The movie avoids stereotypes and cliches. That doesn’t mean that aviation movie afficionados won’t see some things coming, but for the most part the movie doles out more surprises than predictables. One thing you will see coming is the emotional final scene, but it still will have you tearing up. Nothing in the movie is pandering. There is little enhancement of the combat, unlike that other aviation film that came out this year.
Clearly, “Devotion” is going to get nowhere near the box office of “Top Gun: Maverick”, but it is a movie that deserves to be successful. If not, bombast will have won out over sincerity. This is a true story well-told. As you can see below, it is accurate enough to pass the smell test. There is room enough in the subgenre for us to have another good aviation combat movie this year. And I would say a better one. Give me propellers over jets (which the movie shows in a dogfight scene) and Glen Powell with Jonathan Majors over Tom Cruise.
GRADE = A-
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: I used to tell the story of Hudner and Brown in my American History classes. I was very interested to see how close the movie would adhere to history. It turns out that it gets the basics right. Although the movie starts with Brown already an established and respected pilot, there is some alluding to his background. His father was a sharecropper, but Jesse was not destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. He grew up in a house with no central heating or indoor plumbing. He was a good athlete in high school, but also a good student. He graduated as salutatorian. He went to Ohio State University and majored in Architectural Engineering. He was the only African-American in the College of Engineering. In his sophomore year, he saw a poster encouraging young men to join naval aviation. Brown had dreamed of flying since he saw an air show when he was six. He joined the Navy Reserves even though the recruiter tried to discourage him. Brown passed all the written tests and went to flight school where he excelled and became the first black pilot in the Navy. He did overcome discrimination, but the movie shows that once in the Navy, he was respected and there were no barriers. Before he went off to sea, he got his degree in Architectural Engineering. The scenes where Jesse hurls racist remarks at himself in the mirror to motivate himself was true, but apparently this was done when he was younger. There is no evidence he continued this when he was in the Navy. Probably because, as the movie shows, he was treated fairly once he became an officer.
He did become friends with a rich white boy. Hudner’s family owned a string of grocery stores. He was a Naval Academy graduate. Hudner became Brown’s wing man and they trusted each other implicitly. Brown was married to Daisy and had a young child named Pam, but Hudner never visited their home and thus did not make a promise to be there for Jesse. Hudner did not meet Daisy until the funeral. It was squadron mate Carol Mohring who visited several times.
Their squadron did transition from
Bearcats to Corsairs. I found no evidence that Brown had trouble landing on the
carrier the first time. The USS Leyte
was sent to the Mediterranean and the guys did get shore leave on the Riviera. Both Hudner and Brown met her, but separately. There was a trip to the casino, but not by
her invitation. That invitation was
given to a group of Marines. Taylor visited
the Leyte several times. The bar fight
was one of the few Hollywood tropes that snuck into the screenplay
In the Korean War, they flew about 20 missions before the climactic air support mission over the Chosin Reservoir. I found no evidence for the mission where he takes out the bridges. I don’t think the Corsair’s rockets could take down a bridge. The final scene is very close to what happened, although they had not fired on any enemy. Brown’s plane was hit by ground fire and unluckily developed a fuel leak. He did crash land in a clearing. He was pinned into the cockpit. Hudner risked court-martial to belly land near Brown’s plane to try to rescue him. He was unable to budge Jesse. He did use snow to put out the fire, but some remained. Lt. Charles Ward did land his helicopter to help. The duo used an axe to try to free Jesse. After 45 minutes in freezing weather, they had to leave. By that time, Brown had succumbed. Before he did, he told Hudner to “tell Daisy how much I love her.” Brown’s body could not be recovered, so he was given a “warrior’s funeral” when his mates dropped napalm on the crash site.
Hudner was not court-martialed for losing an aircraft against orders. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor. His medal was used in the movie.