Diving movies rule!
I just can't seem to get enough of the thrill of the being submerged in hundreds of feet of water with the ever-present threat of drowning all around me. You know, that feeling of small animals crawling into my wetsuit or larger animals deciding to eat me whole. The intoxicating sensation of my lungs exploding from gas build-up in my lungs. How can you argue with that?
There have been hundreds of diving movies made -- The Big Blue, The Abyss, and all those Ester Williams movies in the fifties. But wait -- the latest Hollywood diving opus has arrived, just in time for Oscar consideration and to salvage -- pun intended -- one actor's career from the murky depths of B-movies.
Men of Honor, based on a true story, tells the tale of Carl Brashear, the first African-American to reach the rank of Master Chief Diver in the U.S. Navy (taking place during the pre-scuba 1950s and 1960s). It's a valiant attempt to tell a thought-provoking story about overcoming racism and working through the political machinery of a white man's Navy (while being harassed at every turn by Robert De Niro). Cuba Gooding Jr. - shaking off the bad memories of such films as Chill Factor and Instinct, portrays Brashear, a hardheaded, black, Southern son of a sharecropper, who heads off to the Navy to pursue dreams of glory beyond the life of his father and the farm. In the Navy, Carl encounters racist work conditions and Mr. De Niro - who plays gruff, racist Master Chief Diver Billy Sunday with an over-the-top performance.
Eventually receiving the recognition of the ship's captain (a small bit part by the great Powers Boothe), Brashear is given the duties of white, enlisted men. Two years later, Brashear is accepted at the Navy Diver School run by that gruff, racist Master Chief De Niro. You can imagine what follows: The guilt-ridden drive to achieve the dreams of his father, the trials of acceptance into white society, the conversion of De Niro into a sympathetic character, the Oscar speeches about not giving up and striving forward, and the near-death of our young hero. You know what I mean, the standard Hollywood drama stuff.
The most surprising element of the film is the strong performance by Cuba Gooding Jr. His brooding face and stout movements give great depth and pose to the character. Too bad that Robert De Niro's characters are becoming pieces of other characters from past movies he's been in. His Billy Sunday is a combination of Cape Fear's Max Cady, Mean Streets' Johnny Boy Cervello, and Casino's Sam Rothstein. Charlize Theron and Aunjanue Ellis are strong as the quiet and supporting wives but stand as the most underdeveloped of all of the characters.
It's a real shame that instead of investigating the era's racism, Men of Honor just paints broad strokes -- people from the South or from Brooklyn must detest all black people in the film. Instead of fleshing out these issues, the film is full of scenes that have now become clichés. The black man refuses the authority of the white man's rules. One man is determined to triumph over all obstacles in front of him. Too bad that after two-plus hours of meandering about, nothing in the movie leaves you with much determination to do anything except go to the bathroom.
As for the DVD, the disc is so exhaustive it will take you an entire weekend to get through all its features. These include a commentary track with all the principals, a making-of documentary, a profile and interview with Brashear, and tons of extended and deleted scenes -- including the original ending, which highlighted the death and burial of Billy Sunday. Recommended.
Heads will roll.