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‘Devotion’: Korean War aviator drama is slow to take off

Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell star in fact-based tale of flyboy friendship

Jonathan Majors in “Devotion.” (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
(2.5 stars)

The final act of “Devotion,” set during the first months of the Korean War, is unexpectedly moving. The poignancy comes as a surprise because most of the preceding scenes are slack and prosaic. This is a fighter-pilot drama that takes more than 90 minutes to get up to emotional speed.

Inspired by a true story, according to the opening credits, “Devotion” charts the slow-developing bond between Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first Black aviator to complete U.S. Navy training, and his White cohort Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, who’s one of the movie’s executive producers). According to Jake Crane and Jonathan A.H. Stewart’s script, which is based on Adam Makos’s 2017 book of the same name, Hudner is the colleague who’s most accepting of Brown. Ultimately, the two are inextricably linked when one of them crashes and the other attempts a rescue that must be accomplished quickly, or not at all.

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The other airmen (including one played by pop star Joe Jonas) aren’t especially inhospitable, or even distinguishable. Most of the racial animosity comes from outside the unit — or from Jesse himself. In one of this stodgy movie’s few quirky touches, the aviator winds himself up to fly by staring into a mirror while reciting insults directed at him in the past. These motivation sessions provide Majors with the most intense moments of his generally underwritten role.

Director J.D. Dillard, whose father was the second Black pilot to join the Navy’s Blue Angels, wisely decided to employ real planes for as much of the action as possible. “Devotion” does include computer effects but makes compelling use of vintage aircraft, including the Vought F4U Corsair flown by Jesse and Tom. (The plane was notorious as a “widow maker” for having a large engine that impeded the pilot’s vision.) The aerial action was expertly choreographed by Kevin LaRosa, who did the same for “Top Gun: Maverick” (which co-starred Powell).

The filmmakers show less finesse with the real-life scenario, which resists being molded into a shapely narrative. The Korean War doesn’t even start until the movie’s halfway mark, and the conflict provides only two major action sequences. The other scene that’s meant to thrill is a fatal mishap for a minor character; it’s an incident that, like much of the movie, is sapped by predictability.

The story begins at a Rhode Island base, where it dawdles through the introduction of Jesse’s wife, Daisy Brown (Christina Jackson), and toddler daughter. Then the fliers ship out on an aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean, where the incongruous highlight is a shore-leave encounter with actress Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan). Tom is a Naval Academy graduate, but on the French Riviera, Jesse proves, improbably, the more worldly of the two.

Jesse speaks just a few sentences of French, but it’s a nice break from the rest of the dialogue, which tends to be stilted and sometimes foreshadows with a sledgehammer. When an American soldier on the ground exclaims, “Dear God, send us some angels,” it’s a sure bet that U.S. planes will arrive the next instant. The aircraft chase the GI’s informal prayer as reliably as the violins tail the piano in Chanda Dancy’s treacly score.

The movie’s climactic sequence is less expected, and a bit messier than the other episodes. It’s powerful because it effectively evokes the chaos and cost of war. Most of the rest of “Devotion” just apes clunky old war movies.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains strong language, some bloodless war violence, racial slurs and smoking. In English and some French and Korean with subtitles. 138 minutes.

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