A feature-length recruiting poster for the U.S. Navy and for overcoming all obstacles through the force of sheer will, “Men of Honor” is a by-the-numbers inspirational biopic about the first black man to become a master chief diver. Full of easy-to-say, harder-to-do messages about never quitting and surmounting daunting obstacles, pic needs only a chorus of “Climb Every Mountain” to be complete. Still, Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. are eminently watchable as, respectively, a cantankerous Southern training officer and a sharecropper’s son who successfully navigates an obstacle course of institutional racism. Fox should be able to generate respectable mid-level returns for this upbeat, if not very exciting, November release.
Scott Marshall Smith’s on-the-nose, highlight-underlined script charts the trailblazing naval career of Carl Brashear, a poor Kentucky kid whose enthusiasm for swimming led him to enter the diving-school program in the postwar period when, even though the military was then technically desegregated, all the cards were still stacked against anyone of his race making it through. The man naturally inspires a great rooting interest, but the film’s rah-rah nature and if-you’re-tough-enough-you’ll-win message simplify all the issues down to the most elementary level.
Opening in 1966 with a TV report on the Navy’s effort to retrieve a nuclear bomb that’s fallen into the Mediterranean Sea, a broadcast on which Brashear (Gooding) is visible, narrative rolls back to 1943, when Brashear’s dirt-poor father warns his son, “Don’t end up like me.” Taking that advice to heart, Brashear enlists as soon as he’s old enough. Assigned, along with all the other brothers, to mess duty, he impresses his commanding officer with a daring prank and two years later reports to the U.S. Navy Salvage School in New Jersey to train under Master Chief Diver Billy Sunday (De Niro), a corncob-pipe-smoking cracker whose racial remarks one takes with a certain grain of salt.
The Navy may be forced to put up with a black man in its ranks, but that doesn’t mean the men have to like it. All the others in the diving school but one refuse to share barracks with Brashear, and that’s just the start of the difficulties and humiliations facing this determined man in a program where three-fourths of them will wash out anyway.
One problem he must deal with immediately is that, with his seventh-grade education, he doesn’t do well on the written exams, so he visits Harlem and recruits a librarian and med student, Jo (Aunjanue Ellis), to tutor him, which in turn ignites a romance that leads to marriage.
But this personal strain in the story receives scant attention compared with the military side, which sees Sunday giving Brashear a harder time than he does the whites — although perhaps partly because he knows Brashear, like Jackie Robinson in baseball during the same period, will have to be tougher than the others just to survive.
While ferociously berating his charge and even shortchanging him of an honor he rightly earned, Sunday, thanks to the subtext De Niro is able to express, has a certain empathy for Brashear due to having grown up poor in the South himself.
But no matter how Sunday might come around in his opinion of Brashear, he’s still under the thumb of a doddering old commander (Hal Holbrook) who’s dead set against the color barrier being broken on his watch. One of the pic’s moderate highlights is the diving program’s final exam, which has been rigged against Brashear but which he manages to pass with exceptional stamina and perseverance.
Nearly an hour-and-a-half in, with Brashear’s career on the way up and Sunday’s on the way down due to drunkenness and insubordination, action jumps back to the 1966 nuke rescue mission. After almost being run down by a Soviet sub while trying to find the bomb on the sea floor, Brashear has his lower leg all but torn off in a freak shipboard accident.
With the Navy ready to retire him, Brashear begins fighting back even while still laid up in his hospital bed, and remainder of the pic recounts his effort to retrain himself with a prosthetic leg and get himself restored to full active duty with the help of a rehabilitated, and now fully supportive, Billy Sunday, whose marriage to a much younger woman (Charlize Theron, in briefly) is hardly explored.
Full of swelling musical strains, meaningful salutes and lines like “Why do you want this so badly?,” “Because they said I couldn’t have it,” “Men of Honor” extols righteousness, stoicism and the no-pain/no-gain mind-set at the expense of any complexity or irony. Direction by George Tillman Jr. (“Soul Food”) isn’t exactly sluggish, but isn’t terribly pacy either. All the same, for those in search of positive role models and films detailing little-known aspects of black and military history, or stressing the value of tenacity and hard work, pic has something to offer.