Whenever there is a new animated movie out, the first people I turn to are my nieces. Call me crazy, but I do not want to be that guy who sits in the corner of a theater by himself seeing a kid’s movie about which I care little. Hence, earlier in the day I took my niece to see Strange World. It was not my first choice. What I would have preferred to see is today’s review, Devotion. What I did not realize is that it came out this weekend. There is another film premiering, She Said, that I am going to miss. I had some trepidation about that one as a practicing Catholic, but it will be a moot point by the time this weekend passes. Perhaps I will circle back to it sometime if one of you, the loyal readers of The Legionnaire, suggest it to me. You can do so, by the way, by going on Facebook or Twitter and sharing a recommendation. In the meantime, you are getting Devotion.
We pick up Devotion in early 1950. Lieutenant Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) has recently joined a new Naval aviation squadron at its base in Rhode Island. As he walks into the locker room where the pilots change into their flight suits, he meets Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors). Actually, he hears muttering first before they are properly introduced. This precedes Lieutenant Hudner meeting the rest of the squadron and learning that he will be Ensign Brown’s new wingman. During their first flight together, Ensign Brown proves his daring as an aviator as he takes Lieutenant Hudner through the paces of buzzing several local landmarks, including his own home. Lieutenant Hudner goes along with it because, unlike many of Ensign Brown’s fellow pilots, the newcomer does not harbor any racial prejudices. Nonetheless, Ensign Brown is wary, and continues to keep to himself. The only one to which he truly opens up to is his wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), with whom he has a young daughter. The initial cracks in the wall that Ensign Brown keeps up is when Lieutenant Hudner offers to give his wingman a ride when he notices the former broke down on the side of the road. The bond that begins to form between the two is going to prove crucial after they all pass the test of landing their F4U Corsairs on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS Leyte, which will serve as their base for the next several months. Upon their certification, the carrier is sent to the Mediterranean Sea as a way of keeping the Soviet Union in check in Eastern Europe. While docked in the South of France at Cannes, the pilots are given shore leave. Most of the other pilots look at it as an opportunity for getting into the kinds of things that only soldiers can do when allowed their liberty. Not Ensign Brown, though, who spends his time buying things for Daisy as he had promised her. Doing so brings him to a chance encounter with Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan), who is impressed by the fact that there is an African American Naval aviator. This earns Ensign Brown and his squadron mates a personal invitation to an exclusive local casino and night club by one of the most well-known actresses in the world at that time. Even so, Ensign Brown is not treated well there, and soon they all leave for a quieter outdoor bar in a different part of town. Yet again, their enjoyment is broken by some rowdy Marines with whom Ensign Brown had previously had a racial disagreement. Before any real blows could come to pass, everyone flees the scene. Those blows would have to be saved for the enemy because not long thereafter, the United States enters the Korean War. The USS Leyte is sent to Korea and soon the squadron becomes involved in the fighting. Their first mission is to blow up a pair of bridges being used by the Chinese at the border to funnel supplies to their invasion of Korea. The first span is done in, but the second is protected by anti-aircraft weapons that they are forbidden to attack because of their location on the Chinese side of the border. As such, Lieutenant Hudner orders a retreat, but Ensign Brown disobeys and destroys the second bridge anyway. Everyone is happy, though Lieutenant Hudner writes in his report that Ensign Brown did not follow his command. This leads to a heated discussion between the wingmen, with Lieutenant Hudner being made to realize the problems such a report can make for Ensign Brown. This is when Lieutenant Hudner also learns the source of Ensign Brown’s mutterings mentioned earlier. He looks in a mirror and repeats all the bad and racially charged things anyone has ever said to him. It concludes with Ensign Brown simply asking Lieutenant Hudner to be his wingman. This vow comes just before they are asked to provide air support for the American troops being hammered by the Chinese at the Chosin Reservoir. In the process, Ensign Brown’s Corsair is hit by Chinese ground forces and is forced to make a crash landing behind enemy lands. In order to help his wingman, Lieutenant Hudner decides to crash land his plane, too. Ensign Brown’s fighter is bent in such a way as to make it impossible to get him out. He remains stuck even after the arrival of the rescue helicopter. Unfortunately, he succumbs to his wounds before they can move him, and they are forced to leave him behind. For his actions, though, Lieutenant Hudner is awarded the Medal of Honor. This affords him the opportunity to offer Daisy her husband’s final words for his wife. As the end credits roll, as many films of its ilk do, there is blurb about some of the historical context.
In many respects, Devotion is similar to 42 (2013), the movie about Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) being the first African American baseball player in the Major Leagues. Both Ensign Brown and Robinson break color barriers. What each movie shows is how incredibly lonely can be that process. It also helps that these events happen roughly around the same time, and they deal with a person essentially being part of a team. While Robinson becomes more of a teammate to most of his fellow players, in Devotion we focus mainly on the relationship between Ensign Brown and Lieutenant Hudner. There is a further departure, too, when you consider the book on which the film is based is actually about the life of Lieutenant Hudner and not Ensign Brown. Regardless, it shines a light on two people who seem to genuinely care about one another no matter the color of their skin. It is also refreshing that the events of Ensign Brown’s death happened largely as you see in the film.
The moment in Devotion that struck me as a practicing Catholic pertains to a promise that Daisy has Lieutenant Hudner make to her before they leave on the carrier. She makes him vow to look out for him, to be there for him. This is later reinforced when Ensign Brown tells him to just be his wingman. This last bit comes on the heels of Lieutenant Hudner doing what he can to minimize the damage done by his after-action report following their first combat mission that talks of Ensign Brown’s disobedience. Ensign Brown is clear that for him, the words in it could be more damaging than Lieutenant Hudner realizes, which is why the senior officer takes the steps that he does. Yet, it comes back to simply being present for the guy next to you. It reminds me of what I was taught as a spiritual director. One of the hardest things to do in direction is to not interject into someone else’s problems and try to fix them. What we are trying to do instead is to reflect back, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what it is that is being heard in their words. Anything that God has to tell a person sounds better, more true, when it comes from within rather than another person telling you what it means. For me, this is seen when Lieutenant Hudner is with Ensign Brown when he passes away. There is a grace in this action. It also affords him the opportunity to repeat Ensign Brown’s last words to his wife, which is all she wanted. To be clear, Lieutenant Hudner did all his could for his friend, but sometimes all you can do is be present. God knows it is enough.
I am glad I was able to see Devotion. I will take it over Strange World any day of the week, and twice on Sunday. There will undoubtedly be those who think Devotion is another run-of-the-mill, boring historical drama. They are not entirely wrong. But, it was a good way for me to wrap up my day.