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‘Patriotism Is A Great Unifier’: Movie Highlights Heroism That Overcame Racial Divide

In AARP interview, the author behind ‘Devotion’ explains how true stories of war can inspire us

Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) in Columbia Pictures' DEVOTION.
Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) in Columbia Pictures' 'Devotion.'
Eli Ade/ Columbia Pictures

The Hollywood movie Devotion, to be released on Nov. 23, is set to be the biggest draw for veterans since Top Gun: Maverick, the highest-grossing film of 2022 thus far.

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A stirring aerial combat epic, it tells the true story of two elite U.S. Navy fighter pilots sent into action in the Korean War in 1950.

At first glance, the two pilots could hardly have been more different. Lt. Tom Hudner (played by Glen Powell, who was Hangman in Top Gun: Maverick) was white and from a privileged New England background. Ensign Jesse Brown (played by Jonathan Majors) was from Mississippi and the first Black carrier pilot.

Yet the pair forged a powerful bond, and their grit and devotion to each other and their country made them America’s most celebrated wingmen. The movie is based on the bestselling book of the same name, which was written by Adam Makos. AARP Veteran Report senior editor Toby Harnden sat down with him.

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TH: What led you to a career researching and telling true stories about great Americans who have served our country?

AM: Growing up, my grandfathers were both an integral part of my life. They had both been in World War II, one as a Marine and the other flying in B-17s. They had served at the very tail end of the war. They didn’t see the horrors that so many others did and so they could talk about it. They took my brother and I to air shows and museums. When other kids played football or baseball or went to the mall, my brother and I began publishing a homemade magazine about our favorite topic: World War II. One thing led to another, and we transitioned to writing books, and that’s what we do today.

TH: You first met Tom Hudner, a Medal of Honor recipient, in 2007, when you were in your mid-20s. That led to your book and this movie. What was he like?

AM: Tom was always gracious, always accommodating, always the gentleman. I was just a young journalist with meager credentials when I first approached him, asking him to retell that story he’d told so many times before. And still, he was willing to talk to me. Also, he wanted to fulfill the duty that came with the Medal of Honor. As he put it, “We wear the medal for all of those who served.” That was pretty profound for me. Tom was a guy who existed for other people, and the act of heroism that he performed reflects that.

TH: You never met Jesse Brown, but you interviewed his widow, brothers and many others who knew him. What sort of person was he?

AM: Jesse Brown was a fascinating figure, in many ways a renaissance man. He could speak French and sing in Latin. His mother was an educator, and she taught him as a kid to love reading and learning and to enrich his mind.

He made it to where no other Black man had made it before — into the Navy carrier club — because he was soft-spoken, polished and poised, just welcoming and unassuming.

Jesse Brown was focused on his job as a professional, which was very dangerous, and he chose it because he wanted to defend and serve the United States of America even if America didn’t love him back. He defused racism everywhere he went because how could somebody not like a man like him?

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TH: Hollywood is often accused of getting things wrong. How did it do with the story of Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown?

AM: From the beginning, the producer, Black Label Media, decided to make the movie about real characters. They wanted to make something that would inspire. True stories inspire. Fiction entertains, but it’s escapism, which is nice but doesn’t give you a road map to make your life any better.

It started when I got a message from this young actor named Glen Powell saying he’d read Devotion and wanted to play Tom Hudner. The next thing, we’re having the waffles with Tom Hudner at his kitchen table. Glen plugged right into Tom's family.

My brother and I were historical advisers on the movie. They built an aircraft carrier in Georgia to film it. We were able to have our hands on everything from the markings on the Corsair aircraft to adjusting the script, including the way Jesse spoke. I even got a cameo in a scene. When they all run out to their planes doing a drill, I’m one of the pilots in the back row. It was a high-class production, start to finish.

TH: We live in divided times. Do you think Devotion and this story of the humanity of two extraordinary pilots can help us?

AM:  One thing I’ve come to understand is that patriotism is a great unifier. We face a choice. We can look at America’s past and say “Oh, we were founded poorly, this wasn’t right or that wasn’t right, and all this was bad from the start.” Or we can look at the ideals of America, what it’s given to the world and what it represents, and we can be proud of her.

The lesson of Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown is that the military is one of the great unifying forces in this country. Everybody puts on the same uniform, and suddenly it doesn't matter where you came from or the color of your skin. All that matters is that you’re there for the same mission.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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