Last month my movie-night girl and I went to see Top Gun: Maverick at the second-run theater. It was, unsurprisingly, a mostly-anodyne tour of the tropes, actually-entertaining in the second half. But I give it credit for one thing: When we were struggling this month to find any movie, anywhere, that we wanted to see in a theater, my girl hopped right on the Devotion train after viewing the trailer.
Last night I did my best to keep a straight face as I choked on the every-other-year experience of buying full-price theater tickets, but I’m here to report: Go see this film.
Jesse L. Brown was (more or less, depending on how you count) the first black US Navy fighter pilot. The plot of the inspired-by film version of his life revolves around two questions pulled straight from reality:
- What was it like to be the de-segregator?
- What on earth kind of person are you that your fellow soldier would crash-land his plane in horrific conditions behind enemy lines in order to maybe save you when your plane went down?
The film’s answer is complex, engaging, and fun.
A quick comparison of the film plot points with an overview-biography of Jesse Brown (I have not yet read the book-length biography on which the movie is based) lets you know that in addition to the necessary compressing of the storyline, that there are a few outright deviations from history. In this case I think those storytelling choices were a reasonable use of poetic license to capture the overall impact of the real-life emotional trajectory.
Pause while we clarify: This is a movie for adults and teens. Not for kids. Just no. FYI there is a young reader version of Brown’s biography that might be appropriate (I haven’t read it). But the film is not the right mental space for children in how it grapples with racism. Just not.
What You Get
It’s difficult to explain just how good this movie is. Production values are high. I now have a total actress-crush on Christina Jackson, who reportedly does her research and it shows, and my goodness thank you casting people for giving us a reprieve from waif-du-jour on the female lead. More things I loved:
- Layers and layers of subtlety underscoring the themes of racism, heroism, and military cohesion in a film that confronts its topic head-on, and jarringly so, from the very beginning.
- Complex characters, and by this we mean actually-complex, not tropey pseudo-complexity.
- The terror of war more effectively conveyed than average, but without any graphic, gratuitously morbid violence that I recall.
- Lots of fun with its topic, like the Elizabeth Taylor sequence. Total playfulness in scenes that also put the heavy issues in-your-face and build tension and add yet more layers of complexity to the whole darn cast.
- Wait a minute, a g-rated torrid romance between two ordinary, faithfully-married people? More like this please.
- And I mean of course I’m all-in on the flying sequences (including some much-appreciated fan-service trope-flying, we did sign up for that, and we get it from start to finish) but also we can love the costuming department on those vintage dresses, yes?
In an interesting storytelling choice, the film lives in the present (approximately the last year of Jackson’s life, as told by the film) and relates only the barest snippets of backstory. No flashbacks, no scenes of the many, many formative events that would have led our leading cast to where and how we find them, each grappling imperfectly, and at times tragically, with a mutual quest to live on the forward edge of ending segregation.
So we get this uneasiness. We get good guys attempting to be virtuous and doing it usually-awkwardly and sometimes outright badly. But the decision to stay fully in the present leads to both an engaging plot arc with a satisfying ending and a film that poses far more questions than it answers, and you like it for doing that to you.
Excellent film. Highly recommended.
Photo: The real Jesse Leroy Brown in the cockpit of a Vought F4U-4 Corsair of Fighter Squadron 32 (VF-32) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte (CV-32), in 1950, courtesy of the US Navy, Public Domain. Wikimedia has a small category devoted to Brown, take a look.
The film does an excellent job of showing the desperation of conditions in the Korean war. For an understanding of just how severe the stakes were in the case of enemy capture, consider the life and death of Fr. Emil Kapaun.
For something completely different in the personalities of groundbreaking African-American wartime aviators, I strongly recommend All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard-Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy. Fantastic book, and a life that is just begging to be made into a mini-series.