If the life of Carl Brashear, the first African-American to become a diver in the U.S. Navy, was really like it is depicted in the highly-scripted "Men of Honor," he would have seen coming, well in advance, every hardship he would ever have to face.
He'd have known whenever a bigot was going to shove him or called him a name. He'd have known when he'd meet the girl of his dreams. And he'd have gotten out of the way of that Russian sub which tangles his underwater gear in the climax of the third act.
It's hard to sit through "Men of Honor" without being pulled out of the story by the nagging feeling that creative license runs wild and unchecked throughout this blatantly fictionalized screenplay. But even if it is 110-percent predictable, the picture has two things going for it that help eke out a slight victory over its rigid, transparent structure -- solid performances from Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Save the few times Gooding does that bug-eyed thing where he's so bursting with integrity he looks as if he might cry, the actor turns in one of his most honest portrayals as Brashear, the son of a proud but dirt poor sharecropper, who joined the Navy in the 1950s and rose from lowly cook to master diver, one of the most dangerous jobs at sea.
How he got there is the crux of the plot. On a very hot day aboard the USS Hoist, Brashear watches the white sailors take a refreshing swim off the side of the ship and, against standing orders, jumps right in with them and swims to a nearby buoy with a white sailor giving chase. Visited in the brig by the captain, who is impressed with his speed, he's reassigned to duty as a rescue swimmer, which only whets his appetite for advancing his career in the face of adversity.
After watching Master Chief Navy Diver Billy Sunday (De Niro) don deep-sea gear (at the time this meant 290 lbs. of canvas suit and brass helmet) to rescue men from a downed helicopter, Brashear applies for dive school. He spends two years hounding Navy brass with letters before they let him into the program -- where he finds the irascible, racist Sunday in charge.
Persevering through a couple reels of harsh training, discrimination and the hatred of his fellow trainees, Brashear eventually earns the respect of Sunday -- a troubled, hard-drinking man who landed as a trainer at the diving school after being busted down in rank for insubordination.
De Niro instills Sunday (a fictional composite character) with exactly the right balance of rancor, veracity and virtue as he chomps on a corn cob pipe he says was given to him by Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself. Completely believable as a military man whose career moves backwards instead of forwards because of his attitude, De Niro lends a credibility that isn't apparent in the script to Sunday's slow turnaround regarding his most obstinate enlistee. When he gets busted down again -- this time for graduating Brashear when he's been ordered to flunk him -- it's a simple, unadorned moment because De Niro refuses to let it become the kind of scene where the soundtrack swells and cymbals crash in cinematic triumph. (Thanks also to composer Mark Isham for keeping himself in check.)
The story arc of "Men of Honor" only has one curveball, which comes in the shapely form of a minor subplot about Sunday's stormy relationship with his beautiful, much younger wife (Charlize Theron in a knockout performance of powerful emotion). Otherwise director George Tillman, Jr. ("Soul Food") never paints outside the lines, especially when it comes to the film's under-developed primary romance between Brashear and his wife Jo (Aunjanue Ellis).
But the only consequential problems with this movie (aside from its innocuous, uninspired title) are the glaring moments of obtrusive fabrication. Brashear may have been sent to the ocean floor to look for a nuclear bomb lost at sea in 1966, but you can be absolutely sure it wasn't broadcast live on TV. A lost nuke at the height of the cold war would have been the best-kept secret in the military.
Run time: 129 mins
In Theaters: Friday 10th November 2000
Box Office USA: $46.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $48.8M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: Fox 2000 Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 41%
Fresh: 43 Rotten: 62
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: George Tilman, Jr.
Starring: Robert De Niro as Master Chief Leslie W. Sunday ('Billy'), Cuba Gooding Jr. as Senior Chief Carl Brashear, Charlize Theron as Gwen Sunday, Aunjanue Ellis as Jo, Hal Holbrook as 'Mr. Pappy', Michael Rapport as GM1 Snowhill, Powers Boothe as Captain Pullman, David Keith as Captain Hartigan, Glynn Turman as Chief Floyd
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