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film review

Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell in Devotion.Eli Adé/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

  • Devotion
  • Directed by J.D. Dillard
  • Written by Jake Crane and Jonathan A.H. Stewart, based on the novel by Adam Makos
  • Starring Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell and Christina Jackson
  • Classification PG; 139 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Nov. 23

Jonathan Majors is an electrifying presence in almost everything, whether he’s playing a tagalong in Spike Lee’s Vietnam drama Da 5 Bloods or a vengeful cowboy in the hip-hop flavoured Western The Harder They Fall. Even his new stint as Marvel’s new baddie Kang is exciting. We’ve seen in teasing bits how Majors can playfully own that space, flashing a mischievous smile that can more convincingly alter the anatomy than infinity stones or the quantum realm.

Seeing Majors in Devotion is a bit deflating. He’s good, naturally. But the movie has Majors playing more sombre and strapped in, the joys he tends to bring to a performance only evidenced in brief glimmers.

Devotion, an admirable but bloated fighter-pilot period piece that cruises instead of soars, is inspired by the real-life camaraderie between two Navy aviators during the Korean War. Majors plays Jesse Brown, the first African-American aviator to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program.

Glen Powell, who already charmed his way through pilot duties earlier this year in Top Gun: Maverick, plays Tom Hudner, Brown’s wingman, and a witness to his struggle.

The movie begins when the pair first meet at a Rhode Island airbase. There’s a guarded locker room handshake and then Devotion’s answer to a meet-cute in the skies. During a training run, Brown leads Hudner on a deviation from their flight path. Their aircraft glide down low over Rhode Island’s serene shores, performing a synchronized dance. It’s a beautiful and romantic (in a platonic sense) moment, allowing director J.D. Dillard (Sleight) to pour his affection for aviation all over the screen.

Dillard grew up with this life. His father Bruce Dillard was the second Black man to become a member of the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels, the pilots who put on air shows. You can feel the grounded intimacy Dillard has with the story of a lone African-American family navigating this lofty calling. Devotion’s richest scenes just happen to take place in Brown’s home, when he lets his shoulders drop a little to enjoy playful moments with his wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) and their child.

The hardships Brown faced growing up in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era and then while rising through the Navy’s aviation programs are suggested. You see it in the weariness on his face or moments in the mirror where he recites “every hateful word” uttered in his direction as a triggering, character-strengthening routine – a way for him to unleash the pain in private so he could maintain his composure in public.

Devotion manoeuvres around becoming a typical white-saviour movie, which is especially impressive since its entire premise is built as one.Courtesy of Sony Pictures

We’ve been trained to expect a Sidney Poitier- or Denzel Washington-flavoured righteous fury in this kind of role, but that wouldn’t have been true to Brown’s character. He prefers to fly under the radar. Instead, we see Brown absorb any overt racism flung in his direction, maintaining a sense of pride with a “rise above it all” ethos.

Devotion, on the other hand, isn’t above a little amusingly petty “only at the movies” karma, as when two soldiers who antagonize Brown earlier look up in awe during the film’s climax, eating crow as he saves their lives from the sky. We expect that kind of satisfaction. The movie often gives into such pandering sentimental or inspirational tropes.

But the film is more interesting in moments when it challenges expectations, like when Brown appears as though he’s having a breakdown during a photo shoot honouring his achievement as the lone Black pilot. The moment is meant to be celebratory. Most movies would use this as shorthand to signal the character’s achievements to the audience. Dillard instead lingers on how it tokenizes Brown through a white man’s lens. In that moment, Brown is being made to stand out from his white squadron when he’s just trying to fit in.

Devotion also manoeuvres around becoming a typical white-saviour movie, which is especially impressive since its entire premise is built as one. Adam Makos’s book mostly relies heavily on Hudner’s narrative and perspective. Powell, an executive producer on the film, pursued the project as a star vehicle for himself playing Brown’s heroic ally. Had this movie been made around the time that Powell showed up as astronaut John Glenn in 2016′s Hidden Figures, it probably would have fallen into the same traps. Remember how the big moment of triumph in that movie about Black women at NASA was Kevin Costner’s character breaking down discrimination when using the toilet?

Instead, Dillard takes every opportunity to interrogate Hudner’s narrative and what it means to be an ally. Whenever Hudner speaks up for Brown or throws a punch on his behalf, we get a revelatory moment observing how self-serving those actions can be.

“Do you know how tired I am of people trying to help me while looking down on me?” Brown asks in one devastating scene. He’s speaking to Hudner, but the line, as delivered by Majors, lands a direct hit against every white-saviour movie that came before it.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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