Laura Clifford Robin Clifford
Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) was born to a poor share cropping family in the Deep South. His daddy's admonishment of "don't end up like me" drives the ambitious lad to seek a life away from the farm and its toil. Carl becomes the first African-American to serve as a diver in the United States Navy, fighting racial prejudice, military bureaucracy and even crippling injury to fulfill his dream in "Men of Honor."
"Men of Honor" is, at its heart, a guy flick. The inspiring biography of Carl Brashear is made in the tradition of John Ford's 1957 movie "The Wings of Eagles" with John Wayne. Like "Wings of Eagles," "Men of Honor" is an old-fashioned yarn of one man overcoming every obstacle put before him, even devastating physical damage, to fulfill his life's goal. Where John Wayne's Frank "Spig" Weads must overcome paralysis and a failed marriage to become a key strategist of air power in the Pacific during WWII, Carl Brashear must face racial prejudice, narrow mindedness and physical trauma as his main obstacles.
Cuba Gooding Jr. does a fine job portraying the smart, though under educated, Carl. As a boy, he proves himself to be a first rate swimmer whose love of the water makes him an ideal candidate to be a Navy diver. But, in the 50's, a black man in the U.S. Navy had three career options - cook, officer's valet or, as his chief tells him, "get the #$%& out of the Navy." Carl defies the racial barriers of the time and challenges the whites-first policy of the military. His commander, Captain Pullman (Powers Boothe), sees past the color obstacle and recommends Carl for dive school. But, for each wall of prejudice Carl overcomes, he faces a bigger one.
Once ensconced in the school, Carl is forced to deal with Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert DeNiro), the dive school master who holds a grudge against blacks. Sunday has the same roots as Carl - Billy, too, comes from a poor, southern farming family - but has a deep resentment of blacks stemming from his youth. For every obstacle Sunday and the school commander Mr. Pappy (Hal Holbrook) place before Carl, the young man hurdles past each, steadily earning the grudging respect of his chief. Eventually, the two men, Carl and Billy, develop a mutual bond and Master Chief Sunday pulls in markers from his comrades to help Carl achieve his goals - respected Navy diver and a Master Chief rating of his own.
This old-fashioned style story flows along in a typical manner for this kind of bio flick. We meet a young Carl on the family farm as he tries to help his father with the work. Dad is adamant that his kids go to school, not work in the fields. This father's desire for a better life for his son influences Carl, strongly, and inspires him to strive for what he wants out of life. As the adult Carl begins his naval career, as a cook, the old adage of success being 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration holds true for the man. Carl has to work twice as hard as his white peers and, despite his seventh grade education and with the help of an attractive librarian, Jo (Aunjanue Ellis), competes with them as an equal. It's not all beer and skittles for Carl as he must overcome the prejudice of the white military bureaucracy against a black man climbing the ladder of success. As one expects, since this is a true story, Carl graduates in the face of adversity.
The final leg of the story has Carl, now a respected diver, called upon to lend his underwater talents to find a nuclear device - a 50 megaton bomb - that was lost during a B-52 accident off of the coast of Spain. This part provides the most raw tension in the film as Carl is swept away by a Russian sub skulking in the area looking for the bomb. This action packed sequence brings up the bomb, but leads to an accident that costs Carl his leg. The end of the story shows Carl, now with the help of Billy Sunday, overcome his handicap and become the first amputee ever returned to full duty in the Navy. Carl keeps his coveted job as a senior diver and gets the Master Chief rating - the highest non-commissioned rating in the U.S. Navy.
While Gooding does a good job in portraying Carl Brashear, Robert DeNiro stands out as the gruff, tyrannical Master Chief Sunday. Giving a perf that is a departure from what he's done lately, DeNiro plays the son of a poor white sharecropping family who escaped that plight and found a home in the Navy. A product of his upbringing and the prevailing mores of the day, Chief Sunday initially sees Carl's arrival as a threat to the status quo of his beloved Navy. Carl's determination, ability and dedication to the Navy slowly turn the chief and his attitude toward Brashear. The change is neither abrupt nor easy and DeNiro puts a convincing spin on his conversion.
The talented supporting cast is not given enough to do, for the most part. Hal Holbrook is wasted as the bigoted dive school commander who refuses to see Carl's inherent talent and ability. Powers Boothe and David Keith lend an enlightened quality to their respective roles as Carl's commanding officers at different periods in the story. They symbolize intelligent officers who see beyond the color barrier. Aunjanue Ellis, as Jo, puts a distinctive arc on her love interest role as she, first, helps Carl then, later falls in love and marries him. Michael Rapaport is a two-dimensional stick figure who is the only white guy who unconditionally accepts Carl into the fold. Charlize Theron is miscast as Sunday's young wife, though the actress makes the most of the small role.
Helmer George Tillman ("Soul Food") shows a deft hand in mustering the talents of his actors and his behind-the-camera crew. Cinematography by Anthony Richmond is straightforward and crisp. The underwater sequences have a murkiness that suits the deep-sea environment the divers work in, giving the film a you-are-there look. Production design, by Leslie Dilley, and costume design, by Salvador Perez, are first rate and capture the period feel with accuracy. In particular, the old-style dive gear used is convincing looking and rings true.
There is a high level of sentimentality throughout men of honor. Carl's daddy, as the young man boars the bus to join the Navy, gives him a handmade radio with the initials "ASNF" carved into the side. This image recurs throughout the film, a mystery until Chief Sunday, carves the true meaning beneath the initials - a son never forgets. Another bit, after Carl loses his leg, turns into a mini "Rocky III" as Chief Sunday drives the amputee to overcome his handicap. These sentimental interludes suit the flick, though, and blends with the rest of the inspirational story.
"Men of Honor" plays out the importance of honor and personal integrity without preaching. As such, the story is a solidly entertaining one that does not hammer the viewer with its message. It is an inspirational true story of a unique man that broke the Navy's color barrier for himself and those like him. Carl Brashear is a true hero and I'm glad his story is told. I give it a solid B.
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