Review – Testing Friendship’s Limits (“Devotion”)

Based on the book, Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice by Adam Makos, this is the true story of two Korean War pilots (one white, one Black) and their friendship for each other in the face of unspeakable horror.

It’s 1950 and his name is Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), a skilled Naval pilot and the only African-American in the class of eleven elite pilots over at Rhode Island’s tough Top Gun-like school. Often ridiculed and chided by others because of his race, his fellow pilots still respect him and his flying prowess. Entering this class is Lt. Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), a fighter pilot from WWII. Soon, Jesse and Tom are teamed up by their C.O., Dick Cevoli (Thomas Sadoski), as pilot/wingman but they also begin a friendship as Tom meets Jesse’s devoted wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), and baby daughter.

War is eminent in Korea, so off they go for training exercises in the Mederiterrian Sea near Italy. Tom, Jesse, and a few of the pilots then get some unexpected shore leave in Cannes, France where Jesse meets a vacationing Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) who invites the boys to an exclusive gambling hotel. But party time’s over after China and Korea start attacking each other, prompting the U.S. to go in with air support. After a tense and harrowing bombing run, the guys return successfully back to the aircraft carrier but their happiness is short-lived. The Marines are pinned down by the Chinese and need firepower from above!

The last 25 minutes is the real story and what you came to see (especially if you read Jesse Brown’s Wikipedia page as I did). It’s gripping, heart-breaking, and goes down almost exactly as the true events in history did without all the usual ‘Hollywoodizing’ that is normally seen. At over 2hours long, it’s more of a character study than an all-out actioner, only dragging occasionally. Thankfully, first-time screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan A. Stewart took the source material and came up with a good ol’ fashioned war-time film crossed with an 80’s TV movie-of-the-week. A straight meat ‘n’ potatoes script that feels right at home and could have crossed over into the Pure Flix Christian films area easily.

Another surprise is the direction by J.D. Dillard, who has done only one other film (2019’s forgettable Sweetheart). Dillard has a real nice touch for this and it shows in several key moments, especially the flying scenes which seem to copycat the ones from Top Gun, because really, how can you not? Then there are some long, uncut tracking shots that are quite excellent as well, especially one in the bathroom with Jesse which is so good! However, the movie is nothing without the two main actors, Majors and Powell.

Powell is easy-going, likable, and has a laid-back charm about him that is completely opposite the character he just played (the thoroughly reprehensible Lt. Jake “Hangman” Seresin) in this year’s blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick. Cevoli is great as the Commanding Officer who is like a gruff teddy bear and Swan is captivating as Elizabeth Taylor. The real star of this movie is Jonathan Majors, who’s all set to play the powerful Kang the Conquerer for the MCU. His performance here is Oscar-worthy and is worth the price of admission, showing passion and incredible emotion. Normally, I don’t like bio-pic’s because of all the inaccuracies they include, but this film held my interest despite the length with terrific acting, writing, and direction. Go see!

**Now showing in theaters   

Brian’s Song (1971)

This made-for-TV-movie made stars of James Caan and Billy Dee Williams while reducing grown men to blubbering messes with the story of two Chicago Bears football players (one white, one Black) who became best friends in the face of bigotry and death.

Based on Gayle Sayer’s 1970 autobiography, I Am Third, this fact-based film deals with the 1965 Chicago Bears and their rookie running back, Brian Piccolo (Caan) who meets his competition, Sayers (Williams), starting an impromptu pranking from the two of them. Sayers is extremely shy, while jovial Piccolo loves to crack-wise. As a friendship begins, they are paired up as roommates by their coach, George Halas (Jack Warden), which was looked at as a racial no-no at the time. Sayer’s prowess on the football field grows (check out the real archival football footage), eclipsing Piccolo, who takes it all in stride.

Their friendship is tested when Sayers suffers a career-threatening knee injury, but Piccolo takes it upon himself to whip his bestie back into shape so he can play again, even though he’s getting his own spotlight. There’s a funny scene that could never be shown today where Brian playfully teases Gayle by calling him a ‘chicken n-word’, and they both collapse in laughter. Anyway, after Sayers is back in the game, Piccolo’s performance noticeably declines and he’s soon diagnosed with cancer.

In a moving and tear-filled moment, Sayers informs his teammates of Piccolo’s condition as his buddy undergoes emergency lung surgery. Just as everything looks okay, the cancer returns. In the movie’s most heart-breaking, gut-wrenching scene, we see Sayers and a dying Piccolo trying to cheer each other up. It’s a devastating, emotional moment that easily swept the Emmys, along with many other awards.

Caan, who would follow this with The Godfather in 1971, is amazing. Going from an easy-going jokester with a Texas drawl to a dying man is incredible. Then you have Billy Dee Williams, the future space pirate, Lando Calrissian, playing an emotional tour-de-force. And check out Gayle Sayer’s home. They recycled the interior & exterior of the Bewitched home from TV! And for you sharp-eyed boomers out there, you’ll see real Chicago Bears players Dick Butkus, Jack Concannon, and Ed O’Bradovich. There was an attempt by Disney to remake this movie in 2001 with (*ahem*) less than stellar results. Face it, there are many movies that should never, ever be remade, and this is one of them!

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