Review: Devotion

The Korean War can lay claim, along with World War One, to being the United States’ “forgotten war.”

Perhaps this is because it was, in a sense, inconclusive. At the end of World War Two, Korea, formerly occupied by Japan, was divided into two zones: a northern zone occupied by the Soviet Union and a southern zone occupied by the United States. After negotiations on reunification failed, the latter became the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in August 1948 while the former became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) the following month. In June 1950, the North invaded the South and swept all before it, penning the South Koreans and their western allies into a small south eastern area of the Korean peninsula. In September, an allied landing in the North Korean rear at Inchon changed the course of the war and the North Koreans were swept back to the border with China. In October, China entered the war in support of the North Koreans, changing the war’s course again, and pushed the allies back to, more or less, the pre-war border. Both sides dug in there and fought grimly until an armistice was signed in June 1953 which holds to this day.

Korea certainly isn’t “forgotten” because it was a “small war.” Some 1,780,000 Americans served in the war, with 36,574 killed, 103,284 wounded, and 4,714 taken prisoner. The excellent new movie Devotion tells the true story of one of those 36,574, Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African-American aviator to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the first African-American naval officer killed in the Korean War.

Devotion is well acted, especially by Jonathan Majors as Brown, Glen Powell as his comrade, Lieutenant Tom Hudner, and Christina Jackson as Brown’s wife, Daisy. The script tackles racism head on, but not in a heavy-handed way, and Hudner’s character is sure to upset those who object to “white savior” narratives. Ultimately it is a movie about friends and duty.

Technically the film is fantastic, so go and see it on a big screen. It is the first movie about aerial combat made in the CGI age in which the planes look like planes and not CGI renderings of planes. The battle scenes actually let you follow what is going on. The unfortunate tendency in such films in recent years, as with Midway or, even worse, the awful Red Tails, is to depict aerial combat as like a computer game with lots of random shots that look like they were edited together by a toddler on a sugar high. In Devotion, you can actually tell what is going on. It harkens back to classics of the genre like Tora! Tora! Tora!.

And there is another interesting contrast with Midway. That movie was partly funded by China, so a lengthy digression was shoehorned in showing James H. Doolittle wandering around China after his eponymous raid on Tokyo, witnessing Japanese atrocities and gallant Chinese resistance. Devotion, of course, has none of that. Brown and Hudner’s war starts with the Chinese attack on the American positions around the Chosin Reservoir. In this movie the Chinese are the enemy. From a Hollywood that has curried favor with the regime in Beijing in recent years, that itself is bold enough to be noteworthy.

Devotion tells an exciting and moving story well. It is as good as any movie made about America’s ‘forgotten war’ and does a fine job of remembering the men who fought in it.