TIFF: JD Dillard’s high-flying thriller effectively saves Jesse Brown’s memory of “The Forgotten War,” even if the thrills are few and far between.
A pessimistic Korean War drama about the friendship between the first black aviator in Navy history and the wing pilot Abercrombie who was always by his side, “loyalty“It may struggle in the shadow of a massive scene like Top Gun: Maverick, but JD Dillard’s classic and fantastic saga has some unique advantages that allow it to survive in such competitive environments.
The first and most obvious strengths are Jonathan Majors, which infuses Jesse Brown with layers of warmth and nuance that Jake Crane and Jonathan A.H. Stewart are able to find it on their own. The second is that “dedication” has a definite enemy, while both Top Gun films have made the largely acceptable decision to lock their heroes into violent battles with villains in general.
But this enemy is not only the Chinese ground forces that ultimately presented Jesse Brown and Tom Hodner (the much-beloved alum “Maverick” Glen Powell) with the most serious threat, nor even the persistent racism that Jesse faces from his fellow pilots at every stage of his naval career. In regards to Dillard’s film, the real enemy is the pernicious skepticism this racism draws from its subject matter. The disbelief that drives Jesse to possess him in his own power, and the mistrust he generates to hold him in the men who fly by his side.
“Dedication” can be rough and cliched at the best of times – it’s nothing if not a war movie that’s seen a lot of other war movies – but it lifts a few inches off the ground whenever it retains the unity that Brown must have felt as he headed toward an aircraft carrier that might The landing signal officer would have wanted him to crash, or he had flown in formation with people who might be happy to bring him down. By providing the details of this particular mind without too much nonsense, Dillard is able to trace how Tom earned Jesse’s trust.
It does not happen through big speeches or any kind of “I am Spartacus!” moments, but through the relatively meticulous process of a white man (not even knowing what he’s really fighting for) learning to recognize what his pilot really needs from him. He’s an ally at several hundred miles an hour, and a support for someone who’s shown more courage simply by getting on a plane than most pilots have done while they’re flying. Tom and Jesse never became best friends – another wrinkle that helps save “dedication” from diving straight down the nose to the “blind side” – but it’s truly touching to see these two men discover what it means to rely on each other, both during and after a fight.
It would probably have been more impactful if Majors and Powell were given better-defined characters to play, but such charismatic stars can be like human holograms on screen, capable of creating depth-rich illusions of even the simplest of designs. There might have been more work with the Majors had “Dedication” focused solely on Jesse’s story, but — for reasons that became especially evident during the film’s closing script — no film set around Brown’s legacy had anything but equal space for Hudner, too.
However, it is strange that we first meet Jesse from Tom’s perspective, when he finds the first black man to fly by screaming in the bathroom mirror. It’s 1950, the “big show” is over, and most airmen at the Rhode Island Naval Base seem convinced they were born too early or too late for their championships.
Meanwhile, these 20-year-olds are enjoying zooming over the local beaches of their F8F Bearcats and buzzing over the nearby suburbs, where Jesse lives with his wife (Christina Jackson, who was often asked to look desperate while reading War Letters, but there for a movie when he needs it) and their young daughter in a house next to a “nice” white neighbor who calls the cops on them at any opportunity.
Joe Jonas plays one of the pilots, who has done better than some other pop stars this fall by making no real impression at all. He’s just like the rest of the movie cast who supports Girls of the Flies in this way – neither better nor worse. Only Thomas Sadosky, who plays the pilots’ commanding officer, gets much of anything to do, as the “Newsroom” actor appears in illustrative mission briefs with such consistent regularity that he’s starting to feel like a cut character offering the next level of a video game. During one such briefing, he told his men to prepare themselves for the Korean War.
Don’t be fooled by the promise of fights: “Loyalty” is a lot more drama than a mid-century action movie. The regular scene sees Jesse and Tom standing together in the narrow recesses of an aircraft carrier and discussing the finer points of what “disobedience” really means to someone the Navy considers less of a pilot than a promotional opportunity (the more overt racist initiatives often reserved for another goofy sequence where The pilots wash up on the beach in Cannes and spend a night with Liz Taylor.)
Tom is little more than a gentle smile with some good intentions behind it, but if Powell is stuck playing an unimportant role – despite being an executive producer on the project – his classic bragging makes it easy enough to believe the nuances of Tom’s loyalty to his pilot. Jesse could also be a little shy about what this movie could use, but Majors makes a whole meal of scraps on his plate, the actor expressing Brown’s inner love and pain with the full richness of the real person he plays. There is no whiff of education to his character or in the dynamism he establishes with Tom; These are just two guys who go out of their way to look out for each other in all kinds of outside circumstances.
screenshot / Sony
This only becomes clearer when the event moves to Korea. While “Mank” cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt opts for a dark, sloppy color palette that makes every interior scene look like it fell out of a Clint Eastwood movie, the aerial sequences are shot with a stunning splendor that’s worth watching on the largest IMAX screen.
The training flights proved most impressive—Chanda Dancy’s lush but arrogant score violin is so intense that pilots fling it like an enemy bombardment—but the combat sequences are depicted with clarity and subtlety that extends to their restricted use of CGI, and reflect Dillard’s maturity as a director. A little about his previous features (the morphed creature feature Sweetheart and the less successful Slate) suggests he has the chops to pull this off, but his clarity of vision shines through from here even when his budget is stretched to breaking point. Dillard’s father was the second black member of the Marine Experimental squad for the Voyage of the Blue Angels, and the director’s latest film reflects the son’s earnestness determined to honor that legacy.
Honoring a legacy is what Devotion does best, as the film returns to the fringes of The Forgotten War to save the memories of two men who would do anything and everything in their power to save each other. Seeing how this effort has continued across generations and on movie screens is very moving, even when the movie itself isn’t.
Grade: C +
“Dedication” will premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Sony Pictures will release in theaters on Wednesday, November 23.