A Cast and Crew’s Commitment to Making ‘Devotion’

The biographical Korean War drama is more about the bonds of friendship than war itself. The film’s director and stars share how they brought the story to life.

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By Brandon Yu

Growing up, the filmmaker J.D. Dillard would hear stories about his father’s experience as a “numbered” aviator. In the 1980s, his father, Bruce Dillard, was the second Black aviator to join the U.S. Navy Blue Angels squadron, a distinction that brought with the job a specific alienation and isolation of “there being no one else like you,” the younger Dillard said in a recent interview.

Dillard, in turn, would also hear mentions of the name Jesse L. Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first Black aviator. But it wasn’t until he read the script for “Devotion,” the film he directed that is now in theaters, that he learned of Brown’s story, and was moved to tears by its bleak familiarity. “Even with that difference of three decades,” Dillard said, “the stories were often uncannily similar.”

“In hearing all the stories, you find a common thing,” said Jonathan Majors, who plays Brown. “And that thing for Jesse was access.” Access to the many locked doors for a Black man in the South, from attending Ohio State University to entering the U.S. Naval Academy. That reality, though, registered in often unspoken terms through his gradual bond with his wingman, Thomas J. Hudner Jr., a relationship that forms the somewhat unorthodox centerpiece of the film and of Adam Makos’s 2015 book of the same name.

The initial seed of the movie came after Glen Powell — who plays Hudner in the film and is one of its executive producers — read the book, reached out to Makos and within days was on a plane to Massachusetts to meet the real Hudner. Powell suddenly found himself eating waffles in the airman’s Massachusetts home, listening to him explain how to land a Corsair fighter plane onto the deck of a carrier. Sitting there, Powell asked for Hudner’s blessing on a film he said he would do everything to get made. “He literally looked me in the eyes, he left the room and came back and signed a picture for me of the crash,” Powell recalled. “And on the back of it, it just said, ‘Get it right.’”

Powell kept the photo on his mantel, waking up and looking at it every morning while the film was being shot. The crash it depicted, of Brown’s plane being shot down during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War, would be the event that in some ways defined Brown and Hudner’s lives, a climactic emblem of their bond that “Devotion” ultimately builds up to. And yet, while the film might be more neatly classified as a war drama, it is the rare entry into the genre that, outside of a few thrilling sequences, mostly abstains from the theatrics of warfare itself, spending most of its running time on a ship carrier with Brown and other airmen (including Joe Jonas and Daren Kagasoff) as they become close and prepare for the possibility of combat.

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“I hesitate to even call this a war story,” Dillard said. “It’s a story about mutual understanding with the backdrop of a war. There’s no part of ‘Devotion’ that really wants to celebrate war.” He cautiously compared it to Steven Spielberg’s own war epic: “It was always our expectation to be slightly more ‘Shawshank Redemption’ than ‘Saving Private Ryan.’”

Determining how to approach this historically based narrative — a 1950s period piece about a Black man in an all-white environment — was partly guided less by what it could be, and more by what it shouldn’t be. “There was a certain avant-garde nature to it,” Majors said. “Any trope that’s in there, we’re getting rid of it. There’s no magical Negro, there’s no white savior. There is no beaten-down, sad, war-worn wife.”

Avoiding what the cast and crew referred to as a ’90s version of this film meant, in a sense, skipping the first act and choosing not to make Black trauma a central motif. “This is not a sort of origin story of Jesse,” said Jonathan A.H. Stewart, a co-writer of the screenplay. “We don’t see him come from the training camps. That story’s been seen many times.”

The film instead begins with Hudner’s arrival to a unit in which Brown is already embedded. Even as Hudner attempts to understand and defend him, Brown remains somewhat skeptical and guarded to the end.

“In my 33 years of living, I’ve many a time been the only Black man in the room,” Majors said. “I can be comfortable but also understand the situation from my point of view. There may not really be danger, but that doesn’t mean I’m not looking for it. That was Jesse’s point of view in many ways, in order to survive.”

Brown and Hudner eventually form a bond, but in Majors’s interpretation, “it’s not a friendship story — this is a story about soul mates and legacy.” While visiting Hudner, Powell was brought into a room filled with memorabilia and artifacts devoted to Brown and the crash — the summation of that solemn legacy he carried with him for decades. “It’s an interesting thing for a tragedy, losing a friend, to be reminded of that every day in your life and congratulated for it,” Powell said.

Piecing together the details of these men — their inner lives, the specific rapport the wingmen had in the quarters of a ship — was the work of an anthropologist, Majors said. Hudner died in 2017, shortly after Powell met him but long before production on the film began, and the closest glimpse that Majors had of Brown was through talking to one of his younger brothers.

Yet the extended Hudner and Brown families, who have remained close through the years, were deeply involved, present on set at times and consulted on details in the film. They told Powell and Majors stories, firsthand accounts and family lore passed down through generations, that provided a portrait of the two airmen: Hudner as innately humble, always trying to do the right thing, and Brown as playfully mischievous, a rebel determined to touch the sky.

At the film’s premiere in Los Angeles in November, Powell, sitting with the Hudner family and Brown’s granddaughter, found himself tearing up at the thought of Jesse and Tom seeing where they were, celebrating a movie about their devotion to each other. What would they think if they were alive to see themselves on the screen like this?

“I actually don’t know if they’d say much,” Majors said. “I think they’d just be flying around on their planes above the movie theater, very happy that their friendship transcended time.”

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