The Real-Life People Behind Devotion Talk About The Legacy Of Jesse Brown And Tom Hudner Jr. [Exclusive]

"Devotion" opens in theaters this Thanksgiving. The Sony Pictures Releasing film is the story of real-life Korean War aviators Jesse Brown, the first Black aviator to complete the U.S. Navy's basic flight training program, and his wingman Tom Hudner Jr., who went to heroic lengths to save his life. The two men were some of the most decorated pilots from that war. 

"Devotion" is based on the book "Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice" by author Adam Makos, who spent time with the families of these brave men and wanted to tell their stories. Actor Glen Powell ("Top Gun: Maverick"), who plays Hudner Jr., read the book and fought to get the film made. He stars with Jonathan Majors ("Loki," the upcoming "Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania"), who plays Jesse Brown. 

I attended the premiere of the film, and in addition to the cast and crew, I got a chance to speak with Makos, as well as Brown's granddaughter Jessica Knight Henry and Hudner Jr.'s son Tom Hudner III. They told me all about the incredible legacy these men left us with and what they want people to know about Hudner Jr. and Brown. Makos also spoke about how passionate Powell was about playing this role and bringing their stories to the big screen. 

'These heroes are never going to be forgotten'

Adam Makos called the film hitting theaters "the realization of a dream." He says, "It's not getting just a movie made, but knowing that these men, these heroes, are never going to be forgotten now." He continued, telling me, "The Korean War is going to have an identity. It's going to have faces, and for the first time, people are going to say, 'I know something about this war.'"

It was a long road getting the book out and the film made. Makos told me that he discovered the story while in Washington, D.C. as a reporter, where he saw Tom Hudner Jr. speak. He saw him in the lobby afterward and said that, for him, seeing Hudner Jr. was like seeing "a rockstar ... this guy is a Medal of Honor recipient." Makos approached him, and Captain Hudner was happy to chat. That led to weeks and weeks of interviews with Hudner Jr. and his family. He said they'd go out to breakfast every morning. "We became friends. He was in his late eighties and nineties. I was just a young guy in my thirties, but we were bonded by an uncommon friendship."

Even more powerful is that Makos took a trip to North Korea. Without spoiling anything, Makos said that it was a difficult trip but that he hopes this film will allow their original purpose to be fulfilled. 

'He was signing up to risk his life'

As for what he learned from Tom Hudner Jr. about Jesse Brown, Adam Makos said that there was a lot to this hero. He says: 

"I want people to know that Jesse Brown did not try to become the first Black airline pilot. He became the first Black carrier pilot. There's a big difference. He was signing up for danger. He was signing up to risk his life, and he was signing up to maybe give his life for a country that didn't necessarily love him back. 

"1950s America had a long way to go and still does. But that's what was so powerful about him. And nobody thinks about that. They just assume he was a carrier pilot. And that's how it goes. He was a guy who was willing to give everything for a country that didn't love him. That's incredible."

Makos said that Glen Powell fought really hard to get the rights to the film and that the way he treated Hudner Jr. "like a grandfather" was what really showed him that this was the actor for the role. Makos actually had a cameo in the film:

"I'm kind of running around in the background while we're running to our planes, and then we come back, and this skipper's looking at his stopwatch, and he's saying, 'Too slow, too slow.' And I'm in the background, kind of looking doleful. You know, 'Oh no, I'm sorry. We'll do better next time.' And it was cool. And I get my four seconds of fame in a scene."

'A true life war hero'

Some of the family members of the aviators joined the red carpet last night, including Tom Hudner III, Tom Hudner Jr.'s son. He told me the experience was "very surreal." He says: 

"My dad would be certainly humbled, a bit overwhelmed by all the attention and excitement, and he was a very humble and understated guy, so this would be a little bit more excitement than he thought would be warranted. But he'd be honored by it and honored, really, that Jesse's story was being told more widely."

Hudner III said that Glen Powell spent a lot of time with his father and told Hudner Jr. on Memorial Day 2017 that he was going to get this film made and play him. Hudner III explained that his father was aware that it was happening, despite not living to see the final film. "He was able to experience the first beginning, the origin story." He also got to be there for the publishing of the book about him, leading Hudner III to learn even more about his own father than he'd already known. Of what he wants people to know about his father, Hudner III says: 

"He was incredibly selfless, incredibly humble, honorable, grounded, and the actions that are portrayed in this movie are certainly just representative of the type of person he was, and throughout his life. I mean, people who met him, came in contact with him were, I think, always struck by how humble he was. And he was a true life war hero who never carried himself as such. I mean, he was just a very humble, understated guy who was more concerned with the people around him than he was with himself."

'They always knew he was special'

Jesse Brown's granddaughter Jessica Knight Henry said the evening was "definitely a little overwhelming" but that she was excited about it all. She explains, "I think the beauty of the story is that it has been held so close for so long, and so we're excited that it's getting its due, but it all feels like a lot of pomp and circumstance, and I can only imagine what my grandfather would be thinking about seeing all of this today."

Knight Henry thinks this recognition for her grandfather's brave actions is "overdue," but that she and her family are "super proud, excited that the legacy gets to live on and in such a big way." She hopes that it inspires people. She was told all about her grandfather growing up. "He was a star athlete, ran track, all of these things. So it's kind of hard to think about living up to that, but we knew there was ... everyone who knew him, you hear, they always knew he was special."

I asked her about how powerful this moment was for her. She says:

"I think the film is so emotional, and I think heartfelt, and so every single time I cry, but now getting to do the ugly crying in front of a bunch of strangers, but it's truly amazing. And I think a lot of the folks that served with him and people who are close to the story, whether they served on the ship or they knew Tom, and so they're just so many people that are still connected to this and getting for them to feel proud about it and have some ownership is really exciting ... "

On Jesse Brown's loving wife, Daisy

One thing that was really important to Jessica Knight Henry was that her grandmother Daisy, played by Christina Jackson, was a big part of the film. She said that Daisy was a huge part of her grandfather's life and his main support. She explains: 

"I think understanding exactly what she meant ... really only being able to come home and truly be himself and be vulnerable and be scared and talk about those things and having that support system is so important. And I think a lot of military spouses represent that. And it doesn't always get the stories, don't get the sort of due that is there. But their love story [is] also just amazing. You hear her story ... how he would walk over 10 miles to just be there so he could walk her to school."

"Devotion," directed by J.D. Dillard, will hit theaters on November 23, 2022.