Jonathan Majors Thrives In A Biopic That’s A Cut Above The Rest [TIFF]

Dec 16, 2022

The looming specter of whiteness often plagues stories of Black achievement, overshadowing what should be singular moments of triumph. Though it is true that these legends disrupted the framework of whiteness and pushed the world towards progress, the films about them don’t necessarily need to follow that same structural path. There is an option to foreground these people’s interior lives, with whiteness instead functioning as mainly an obstacle within the narrative. But films like “Hidden Figures” and “Green Book” are choked by their white characters, both good and bad, taking time and focus away from the Black historical figures we came to the theater to learn about. With his third feature, “Devotion,” director J.D. Dillard bucks against those storytelling inclinations by dedicating nearly every scene to understanding a complicated young Black man with an admirable work ethic and a deep sense of conviction.
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The film, based on Adam Makos‘s book “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice“, tells the true story of two Navy fighter pilots serving during the Korean War. Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) is the first Black aviator to complete the U.S. Navy’s flight training program, as well as a dedicated family man. His wingman Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) is a talented pilot as well but lacks passion and direction in his work. A bit of a loner, Tom isn’t quite sure what kind of man he wants to be when he meets Jesse, but he’s quickly captivated by Jesse’s drive and dedication to perfecting his skills in the sky. Together, the men build a bond based on the continuing pursuit of mastery and mutual understanding.
Recognizing his support position, Tom does his best to act as an ally for Jesse in a racist world that judges him harshly for every move he makes. And yet, neither the film nor Jesse gives him a pat on the back for his efforts. Tom is frequently criticized for his condescension and short-sightedness regarding Jesse and the volatility of his position as one of America’s first Black fighter pilots. This element sets “Devotion” apart from other films within its genre: Tom is no white savior. Instead, he’s a man trying and often failing to do right by Jesse. Powell plays Tom as a people-pleaser with a restless spirit, and it’s a much quieter character than Hangman, the pilot he plays in the recent box-office hit “Top Gun: Maverick.” Downplaying his easy charm, Powell wears Tom’s smile as a mask that hides his insecurities.
The title of “Devotion” has several applications within the narrative. There is Jesse’s devotion to his wife, daughter, and his work. There is also Tom’s dedication to understanding and supporting Jesse, as is the same with Jesse’s wife Daisy. And, of course, there’s devotion to one’s country, complicated by the government and societal reluctance in adhering to its own promise of equal rights for everyone. Even while serving his country, Jesse knows that his sacrifices only bring conditional praise and that his place in the Navy won’t save him from bigotry. The only place he truly feels safe is with his family. As Daisy, Christina Jackson takes on the thankless role of a devoted wife and injects humor and playfulness into the scenes at Jesse’s home. Jesse’s scenes with Daisy and their young daughter Pamela are among the best in the film, portraying how his home life served as an escape from a tense, racist world.
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The film comes to life when Majors and Powell are in the air. Dillard and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt make the sky feel vast and alive, threatening to swallow up Jesse and Tom at any moment. Along with the film’s thrilling flight scenes, Majors is the biggest draw of “Devotion,” showcasing his distinctly masculine vulnerability to portray a man as strong as he is silent. Majors plays Jesse as a man who has seen how the world devalues his voice, and so resolves to keep most of his insight to himself. His most powerful scenes are in bathrooms, as he recites all the racist insults he receives into the mirror, leaning over the sink with intense eyes. Sometimes a single tear will flow down his cheek, but he never gives anyone the satisfaction of hearing him sob. With his star power and Dillard’s emotionally intelligent script, “Devotion” is a cut above the usual Hollywood biopic, allowing for a more contemplative portrait of a soft-spoken, courageous man who deserves to be remembered. [B+]
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