Aviation films are rare. Good ones that emphasize the pilots’ perspective and properly showcase the hardware are extremely rare.
With the opening this week of Devotion, a movie about the relationship between Jesse Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black fighter pilot, and Thomas Hudner, his wingman, 2022 becomes a landmark year for airplane fans. The long-awaited release of Top Gun: Maverick last spring is still generating buzz among pilots. And the new film—based on a true story and set during the Korean War—promises to keep the conversation going.
We have yet to see Devotion, but we do know a few things about the production. The following is a short list of things to look for and themes to be aware of while watching.
Something seems familiar: If you enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick, you might find similar appeal in Devotion because the two productions share some of the same personnel. You might know that Glen Powell, the actor who plays Hudner in the new film, also portrayed fighter pilot Hangman in Maverick. But behind the scenes was Kevin LaRosa, the Hollywood aerial coordinator and vice president of aerial film production for Helinet Aviation Services. He helped make Maverick’s flight sequences so compelling and did similar work on Devotion. See if you can spot a signature style in which the flight scenes are put together.
When in doubt, ask Dad: The life of a Navy pilot is stressful. It gets worse when a deployment means you will not see your family for months. Devotion director J.D. Dillard wanted to convey the depth of emotional difficulty Brown was experiencing while fighting far away from his wife and young daughter. He turned to a reliable resource: his father, who was a naval flight officer beginning in the 1980s—30 years after Brown’s story takes place. As an African American, he, too, had to deal with prejudice and what Dillard called the “isolation” of being in a high-stress environment and not seeing anyone else who looks like you. “I saw so much overlap with my dad’s experience in the Navy,” Dillard said in a recent interview with National Public Radio. He said he spoke at length with his father while working on Devotion. “The fruits of those conversations were ultimately way more important for what the film ended up being.”
Jet Age on the rise: By the beginning of the Korean war, the world’s air forces were transitioning to jet-powered aircraft and fighters like the Vought F4U Corsairs that Brown and Hudner flew, which had been among the best just a few years earlier during World War II, were suddenly speeding toward obsolescence. A trailer for the film shows a Russian-designed MiG-15 jet chasing a pair of Corsairs, its cannons blazing. One can imagine the shock pilots must have felt when facing an enemy with such advanced machinery.
The Corsair was a bear: Brown and Hudner’s squadron, VF-32, operated from the aircraft carrier Leyte, and while it was an outstanding fighter aircraft, the Corsair had a bad reputation on carriers because it was difficult to land. Earlier models had a violent stalling tendency that tended to catch inexperienced pilots off-guard and send them crashing into the deck or overboard. Even after aerodynamic modifications alleviated that problem, the airplane’s long nose blocked the pilot’s forward visibility during landings. Carrier squadrons using the Corsair during World War II often switched to the Grumman F6F Hellcat which, while not as fast, was easier to land and more forgiving of green pilots. Keep an eye on deck operations during the film.