Based on Adam Makos’s 2015 novel, the film “Devotion” tells the true story of the friendship between Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown and Lieutenant Thomas “Tom” Jerome Hudner Jr., AKA Tom Hudner, during the Korean War. While we are going to explore the characters in this article, we must mention that Jesse Brown died on December 4, 1950, after deliberately crash landing due to the loss of oil that resulted from Chinese infantry fire in a valley among the mountains of the Chosin Reservoir at -9 °C. He didn’t die right after the landing, but his legs were stuck under the plane’s fuselage. Thomas Hudner, too, crash landed nearby after realizing that Jesse was stuck in a plane that was burning. However, he was unable to pull his friend out. Jesse passed out after a failed attempt by Tom to pull him out, and never opened his eyes again. Jesse Brown’s body was never recovered, but two days later, his aircraft was bombed by the US Navy to prevent the Chinese from getting their hands on it. He posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Thomas was given a Medal of Honor.
Portrayed brilliantly by Jonathan Majors, Ensign Jesse Brown is a professional aviator. He is more of a quiet guy; he takes his time to make friends. The first black aviator in the US Navy, he has had to endure a lot of hardships and more, to reach the position he has attained. Racism was more than prevalent, or one might say normal, during that time, and for a black man to become an aviator was no small feat at all. After one of their members from Squadron 32 (VF-32), Carol Mohring, dies, Jesse tells Tom that while at flight school, he was made to take the same swim test 10 times and was forced to give up. When the USS Leyte halts at Cannes, France, for a shore leave, there is a point when all the aviators of the Fighter are having fun at a bar at night. Jesse gives his badge to Tom so that he can woo a woman. Tom hesitates, and that’s when Jesse reveals that the officer who was supposed to pin the badge on his chest had refused to do so. All these are the reasons why he is so conscious of the people around him.
In the film, he is disrespected multiple times, but he keeps his composure and remains calm, even trying to prevent his friends from getting into a fight. He seems to have made peace with situations that charge him based on the color of his skin. However, there are three scenes in the film where we see Jesse demeaning himself for how unworthy he is. The third scene reveals that the words he says are not his own but those of all the people who have cursed him racially or in any other way since he was a boy. He has maintained a diary of all the bad things they told him and repeats the words to himself. This outcome is a result of all the oppression he has suffered throughout his life, and we also see it in the film when he is mocked by some ground troops. But why does he do it? Is it to pressure himself to perform better on the battlefield? Or is it his way to come out of the shell of oppression that he has been forced into through continuous racism? We must understand that as flattering as it is to be the first black US Naval aviator, it is also a weight that he has to carry. Hundreds of years of poverty, oppression, slavery, and struggle for freedom, and now he stands as the sole black man who achieved the impossible.
Clearly, Jesse Brown’s achievement was an amalgamation of not just his talents and bravery but also his ability to endure the racist treatment he had gotten since he was a kid. This affected him so much that he even told Tom that he feared that the landing signal officer (LSO) would deliberately crash his aircraft because he was black. His doubts even take their toll on Tom when Jesse finds out that Tom’s mission report, containing a detailed account of their bombing up of two bridges on the Yalu River (North Korea and China border), during which Jesse went out of his way to blow up the second bridge by risking his life, shows how Jesse ignored Tom’s orders, who was leading the squadron. Jesse even charged Tom with looking down on him when Tom brought him a piece of paper with testimonies of their VF-32 squadron teammates mentioning how Jesse did the right thing. It isn’t Jesse, but his experiences talking through him.
The film, in a great way, takes a dig at racism when the ground troops (the guys who mocked Jesse) pray for an angel while taking fire from the Chinese at Hagaru Base, Chosin Reservoir, North Korea, and moments later, Jesse’s aircraft flies past them, launching missiles towards their enemies. A random soldier yells with excitement. They have just been saved by a black pilot. It certainly reminds us of the time Muhammad Ali spoke of asking his mother as a kid why Jesus was white with blonde hair and blue eyes and what had happened to all the black angels when they took the pictures of The Last Supper. Well, we do know what happened to one of them—he became the first black naval aviator of the United States of America. It thus qualified him for the title “Above All Others,” which was on the back of the Rolex wristwatch gifted to him by the black sailors, whom he addressed as brothers, aboard the USS Leyte. By becoming an aviator, he didn’t just serve his nation but, more than that, especially during that time, served all his black brothers and sisters across America.
Lieutenant Thomas Hudner, also portrayed effectively by Glen Powell, was assigned to the USS Leyte, much after Jesse. Jesse made Thomas, aka Tom, realize that it was Tom who had the responsibility to befriend Jesse or remain co-workers. Tom does the job steadily, even earning Daisy’s trust, which makes Tom promise to be there for Jesse while they are flying together. Naturally, she realized that Tom had indeed earned Jesse’s respect as he had been invited by Jesse to their home.
After multiple conversations, Tom understands the pain that is inside Jesse, and sharing it with him only brings the two comrades closer. There is a harsh moment in the film where Jesse asks Tom to forget the lifesaver and jump into the water with him. In other words, be his wingman. This is what we see Tom do when he decides to crash land his plane after realizing that Jesse is stuck in his aircraft that is burning. He knows that he will be getting into enemy territory, but it doesn’t matter because his buddy needs him. So, he jumps into the water. Tom tries hard to pull Jesse out of the cockpit, but his legs are trapped under the fuselage. Jesse is losing blood and is suffering from the cold. Tom waits with him until the rescue helicopter arrives and then tries to use an axe to break open the fuselage but to no avail. Tom looks at Jesse, who is not moving anymore. He realizes that Jesse is gone. He promises Jesse’s corpse that he will take him back but is unable to do so as it can be dangerous. The order is to bomb the aircraft, both Jesse’s with him in it and Tom’s. Tom is filled with anguish and breaks down in front of his squadron and Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli.
Later, when Tom meets Daisy at the White House event, he apologizes to her for failing to save Jesse and gives her Jesse’s badge. He admits that he was scared of meeting her face-to-face but managed to do so. For Tom, speaking to Daisy is like confronting himself after being unable to save his close friend. He is only able to come to terms with himself after Daisy, again becoming the stronger of the two just like she was with Jesse, tells him that he did what he was supposed to do, i.e., be there for Jesse.
Speaking about Jesse’s nature at home, he is a loving husband and father. His wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) and little daughter Pam are his only treasures in the world, and “Devotion” makes this fact very clear. They have a happy family. Daisy knows that she will have to let him go someday and is scared of it, but she and Jesse provide each other the courage they need to survive while being apart from one another. Jesse promises to write her letters every week and does so, too, until the final letter arrives at their home carrying the news of his death. Daisy is a strong woman who understands Jesse to the core, so much so that she knows the words and thoughts in Jesse’s head at times and answers accordingly with reassurance. There is a scene where they are sitting on a beach, and Pam is playing nearby. Jesse is about to leave for his ship and is staring at Pam. Daisy understands that he is worried and calmly tells him to be careful, and that’s all. From where they are sitting, Jesse will only be 5000 miles away. As long as they know that they love each other, distance won’t matter. As Jesse mentions in all his letters, he will be Daisy’s loving husband, lovingly and completely hers forever. When Tom apologizes to her for being unable to save Jesse (at the end of the film), Daisy, the strong woman that she is, tells him that it wasn’t up to him to save Jesse but that he kept his promise to her by being there for Jesse till his last breath, and that’s all that matters. It only proves that Jesse’s strength belonged in part to Daisy as well. She gave him the strength of love that made him survive and return to her and Pam time and again. As Cevoli tells Tom in the middle of the film (after the dual bombing of the Yalu River bridges), the real battle isn’t won by carrying guns but by being someone who people can count on. And U.S. Naval aviator Jesse LeRoy Brown was one of them.