Friday November 10, 2000
In 1948, Harry Truman ended segregation in the armed forces, but it did not fade away overnight any more than it did in other American institutions. What Jackie Robinson endured in breaking the color line in baseball and what a clutch of brave African American students faced in integrating Southern schools is well-known, but "Men of Honor" tells us what it was like for Carl Brashear, son of a Kentucky sharecropper, to become the first African American Navy diver in the early 1950s.
It needs to be made clear right at the top that "Men of Honor" was inspired by the life of Brashear, but that as writer Scott Marshall Smith has stated, "This is not a connect-the-dots biography." In other words, this film is part truth, part invention--don't go thinking you're seeing a biopic.
What fledgling screenwriter Smith and director George Tillman Jr. ("Soul Food") have done is give Brashear's story a heart-tugging mythological status, anchored by a rousing struggle of wills played out powerfully by a pair of Oscar-winners, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Brashear and Robert De Niro as Billy Sunday, a composite of various Brashear foes. The film is further enlivened by a series of spectacular and suspenseful undersea action sequences. Brashear's life clearly is the stuff of a big, stirring screen saga, and "Men of Honor" gives it the full-throttle Hollywood treatment.
What Brashear endures in his determination to become a Master Chief Navy Diver is at times so extreme that the effect would be comically absurd if his ordeal didn't ring so loud and so true. "Men of Honor" is relentlessly larger-than-life and unsubtle in making a superhero of Brashear and adversary of Sunday. Luckily, Gooding and De Niro have the talent and personality to pull it off, and the film emerges as a dynamic entertainment with the punch of an especially spectacular sports event--yes, a World Wrestling Federation match does come to mind.
Brashear's father (Carl Lumbly), weary with the knowledge that no matter how hard he works he will never be able to own the land he cultivates, sends his son off to the post World War II Navy with the admonition to "be your best." Automatically consigned to the galley on a ship in the South Seas, young Carl yearns for better. Whites swim in the ocean on Fridays, blacks and other minorities on Tuesday, but on one especially sweltering Friday, Carl decides what the hell and jumps into the sea along with all the whites; he most likely knew he would be able to beat out everyone else in a race to a buoy.
He ends up in the brig for violating segregation rules but only momentarily, for he has impressed a captain (Powers Boothe) sufficiently for the officer to get him transferred to the Navy diving school in Bayonne, N.J. Brashear has his work cut out for him in learning how to become a salvage expert. His presence, as the sole African American, empties the barracks, except for a stuttering kid from Wisconsin (Michael Rapaport).
The kid is promptly bounced from the diving program by De Niro's Billy Sunday, no relation to the famed 30s evangelist of the same name, but just as fiery, a tough, rebellious, hard-living redneck who automatically resents Brashear because, as he says, black sharecroppers would always work cheaper than whites. Not helping matters is that the base commander (Hal Holbrook) is a crazy, reclusive old racist who reminds Sunday that as long as he is around, no black man is to be allowed to graduate from the diving program.
The labors of Hercules--or Harry Houdini--are child's play as to the feats of strength and will that Brashear must perform at diving school and in a dramatic true-life incident later on. Gooding tempers Brashear's physical prowess and single-mindedness with an affably winning modesty and clear intelligence. De Niro's Sunday is a crusty old salt finally too smart, too untrammeled a spirit, to be able to deny any longer Brashear's soaring superiority, an acknowledgment that could transform him from the small-minded man Brashear has shown him to be. "Men of Honor" keeps chugging along, building to an all-stops-out finish, accompanied by one of those inevitable triumph-of-the-human spirit scores, this one composed by Mark Isham.
Gooding and De Niro, both blessed with innate humor, are most emphatically the film's stars, with Charlize Theron as De Niro's somewhat improbable rich, young glamour girl wife, who proves to be more staunchly devoted to him than you might have imagined, and Aunjanue Ellis as Brashear's premed student fiancee who helps him overcome his seventh-grade education. David Conrad coolly plays a man-you-love-to-hate type, a relentless Navy bureaucrat who reminds us how racism can flourish in very high places. Production designer Leslie Tilley and his staff evoke the '50s with an authenticity that, unlike other aspects of the picture, is beautifully understated.
"Men of Honor" is socially critical pop mythology at its most exuberantly potent, but it leaves you wondering what the life of the real Carl Brashear, born in 1931 and very much alive, has really been like. (Pitting him against the fictitious Sunday has the effect of making the film almost as much Sunday's story as Brashear's--and De Niro is in fact top-billed.) Brashear really deserves to become the subject of a comprehensive documentary. "Men of Honor" leaves you wanting to know more, and that's not a bad thing.
Men of Honor, 2000. MPAA-rated: R, for language. A Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a State Street Pictures production. Director George Tillman Jr. Producers Robert Teitel, Bill Badalato. Executive producers Bill Cosby, Stanley Robertson. Screenplay Scott Marshall Smith; based on the life of Carl Brashear. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond. Editor John Carter. Music Mark Isham. Costumes Salvador Perez. Production designer Leslie Dilley. Art director Lawrence A. Hubbs. Kate Sullivan. Set decorator Rona De Angelo. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. Robert De Niro as Billy Sunday. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carl Brashear. Charlize Theron as Gwen. Aunjanue Ellie as Jo.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times