Monday, October 3
Shadow

TIFF 2022: Devotion, Chevalier, Carmen

What does it mean when we say “movies are back”? I’ve seen the oft-used phrase, sometimes in jest, thrown around on Twitter. I’ve also heard it uttered in winding queues and within the bustling afterparties at the Toronto International Film Festival. Having visited the slimmed down iteration of the festival last year—where the streets were so empty that they were nearly nameless; the talent barely appeared; the premiere screenings, featuring limited capacities, were a third filled, and the empty seats reminded you of the friends not there—this year is indeed different. The people have returned; the red carpet is frying in the sun; and the movies are bigger than ever.

And yet, to really say that movies are back, a tangible element rising above a vibe must be present. The movies have to actually be good. 

In the festival’s overwhelming schedule, I found three adventurous, risk-taking films that remind you of the new stories about old figures that can still be told. They do not shirk from reaching for grandiose heights, nor do they lose their common touch. They give you hope that if movies are not back, then they are surely on the mend.   

One such film points out that not every Civil Rights hero marched through the streets. Some flew through the air. Jesse Brown, now little known to the general public, was such a hero. At the height of segregation, he became the first Black aviator to earn his wings through the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program, inspiring diversity through his very presence and his immeasurable skill. J.D. Dillard’s “Devotion,” a sharp-turning piece of history and an exhilarating war drama, respectfully tells Brown’s imperative story for a new generation.

We first meet Brown (a visceral Jonathan Majors, giving a physically and emotionally demanding performance) by way of his voice. Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, who also served as executive producer) enters the locker room as a new transfer to the VF-32 squadron. He arrives hearing the sound of Brown shouting vicious, racist insults at himself in the mirror. Brown, a survivor of violent prejudice within the Navy, writes down every slur ever directed at him within a notebook, so he might recite it later for courage. That detail is one of the many ways Dillard sidesteps the temptations of other Civil Rights films, which try to signify their subject’s importance through enacting bodily violence. Dillard instead weaves the travails Brown faced into the dialogue rather than turning to gruesome means. 

While many people will immediately compare this Korean War flick to “Top Gun: Maverick” (that, at best, would be a shallow parallel to make), “Devotion” stands on its own. The film mostly details the close friendship that formed between Brown and his white wingman, Hudner, as they prepared for war. Christina Jackson as Brown’s wife, Nix, is a particular highlight of the film’s first half, which outlines Brown’s deep vulnerability and the love he felt for his family.

When we do arrive to the combat section of “Devotion,” we’re treated to an immersive experience where the roar within the cockpit thrills; the cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank”) firmly establishes us in the dimensions of the skirmishes; the editing by Billy Fox (“Dolemite is My Name”) is tightly wound to gripping ends. A two-and-a-half-hour film that literally flies by, “Devotion” is a graduation of sorts by Dillard, from his smaller genre film canvas to a spectacular large-scale onslaught. His latest is as entertaining as it is potent.     

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