Stories about the military frequently hold civilians at arm’s length to valorize servicemen and -women through their actions in the line of duty. In 2022, three films not only take audiences inside the lives of veterans, but uniquely bridge that gap between the sacrifices they make, and the support they seek — and too infrequently receive — from the rest of the country.
J.D. Dillard’s “Devotion,” set for release Nov. 23, tells the story of Jesse L. Brown, the first Black naval aviator, who died in December 1950 during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Primarily focusing on Brown’s life after completing the Navy’s basic flight training program and his two years of fighting in the Korean War, Dillard does not flinch from the racism that Brown encountered during training, but the filmmaker paints a vivid and ultimately inspiring portrait of the friendship that developed between Brown, portrayed by Jonathan Majors, and his wingman Tom Hudner (Glen Powell).
Given that the real-life Hudner received the Medal of Honor for crashing his own aircraft to try and save Brown’s life, depicting their bond was a no-brainer foundation for great drama. But Majors says there are deeper parallels between their story and what’s happening in the world today that would benefit military personnel and average moviegoers alike.
“One of the things we wanted to talk about in the story was that, to be friends, to be allies, that takes work,” Majors tells Variety. “There is no cookie-cutter way of doing that, and to be a wingman, what does that take? And Jesse says, ‘Just get in the water with me.’ And that line to me really crystallized what the mission is and how we can help one another.
“There’s a thin line between sympathy and empathy. And when you’re in it with the individual, there’s actually a shared experience,” he adds.
While Dillard insists his goal wasn’t to explicitly make a film about allyship, he says the life and accomplishments of the duo dovetailed nicely into conversations that are far from resolved and are currently taking place.
“‘Devotion’ is about exploring being there for someone, but in the process of that, not overtaking their agency,” he says. “The characters come to life and the inspiration comes from what really happened. But the opportunity that I found was we all want to be taken care of, but there’s a specific sting when someone else’s desire to help you out takes power away from you. And Tom has to learn to take Jesse’s lead even when he wants to help — and I think that is absolutely applicable to the state of our union.”
While Brown and Hudner’s relationship feels almost archetypal — two people who truly exemplified what it means to “get in the water” with someone — Lila Neugebauer’s “Causeway,” released Nov. 4, captures a much more fragile, if no less urgent, connection between a veteran and a civilian counter- part. In the film, Jennifer Lawrence plays Lynsey, a New Orleans native who returns from Afghanistan after suffering a debilitating brain injury, and becomes friends with James (Brian Tyree Henry), a mechanic nursing unresolved grief of his own. Though it was not her goal to specifically explore what facilities currently exist for traumatized individuals, inside or outside the military, Neugebauer says a side effect of telling this story was highlighting deficiencies in access to mental-health resources, from intensive medical care to the most basic levels of communication and transparency.
“While this film is not explicitly focused on systemic obstacles to access, it’s also not incidental that [Lynsey] spends much of this story in isolation,” Neugebauer says. “My work on this movie has hugely amplified my awareness that so many of our veterans and service members struggle to access care. And if the movie raises any kind of awareness at all around that reality, I hope that might be of some use.”
When discussing the research that she and Lawrence did to specify and “diagnose” Lynsey’s experiences for the purposes of their story, Neugebauer says her conversations with veterans and service members made her particularly mindful about not characterizing that population on monolithic terms, either on screen or in real life.
“I would say that we were guided by an awareness that every veteran we spoke to was a multi-dimensional person with their own rich and complex backstory,” she says. “While there are common threads I began to observe the more people I talked to, I also found myself marveling at the range of voices and experiences that characterize the U.S. Armed Forces. Each individual comes to service with highly particular life experience.”
Speaking directly to Neugebauer’s point, writer-director Elegance Bratton makes his feature debut Nov. 18 with “The Inspection,” about a gay, homeless Black
man who faces near-lethal hazing after joining the Marine Corps. As timely and socially relevant as the story undeniably is, the fact that it was directly inspired by Bratton’s own experiences lends his film a unique and irresistible power — not least of which because he means for the tale to be inspiring rather than cautionary.
“Joy that’s won through darkness is sometimes that much more empowering,” Bratton says.
Given the overlapping dismissal and marginalization of his identity as a Black gay man, Bratton took a lesson from his military experiences that feels like the polar opposite of what one might expect. But given the experiences that motivated him to first enlist, the filmmaker says that his — and the film’s — perspective was not only a natural conclusion for him to reach, but a deliberate goal meant to prove something to the world, and most of all to himself.
“This was the first time in my life that I couldn’t just be excluded because people thought I was gay,” he says. “The don’t ask, don’t tell of it all, while it being oppressive, also had another kind of effect where, because you can’t ask me and I can’t tell you, if we’re assigned a mission, you have to move on from your prejudice.
“You have to find a middle ground because, sure, my importance is determined by my ability to protect the people to my left and to my right — but my colleague’s importance is also determined by their ability to protect me.”
Given its perhaps counterintuitive approach to its subject matter, Bratton recognizes the potential for “The Inspection” to polarize audiences. But just as much, it’s his film’s specificity that makes it so broadly and powerfully relatable — if not to the lived experience of its filmmaker, then to his ability to transform a grueling survival story into journey of redemption, reconnection and most all, love.
“This is a film identifying deeply with people who are in desperate situations, who choose to make a positive life choice, and for me, the Marine Corps was just that,” Bratton says.