Men of Honor



US 2000
dir George Tillman, Jr
scr Scott Marshall Smith
cin Anthony B Richmond
stars Cuba Gooding Jr, Robert De Niro, Michael Rapaport, Charlize Theron
129 mins

An overlong, overcooked, flag-waving biopic of Carl Brashear, the US navy’s first black ‘master diver,’Men of Honor is so uncontroversially safe that Al Gore famously attended a screening of it at a crucial stage in the Florida recount. The film doggedly emphasises Brashear’s indomitable spirit, his determination to succeed against massive obstacles, but, as played by Gooding Jr, he’s a little too saintly for comfort. It’s too corny to suggest his character lacks depth, but there’s a distinct lack of tension in the script which, like many true-story adaptations, has a broken-backed, uneven structure.

Like its hero, the movie plugs on remorselessly towards its inevitable, upbeat conclusion, caricaturing anyone foolish enough to oppose or doubt Brashear as either a despicable thug (Holt McCallany), a senile fool (Hal Holbrook), a smart-ass pen-pusher (Crispin Glover lookalike David Conrad) or a blustery, self-hating alcoholic (De Niro). At one point the film seems about to make an intriguing diversion into broader civil rights issues, only to pull back – perhaps some kind of more militant black character could have questioned Brashear’s burning desire to succeed in the ‘white man’s navy’?

At each stage of his progress Brashear encounters the most blatant, unapologetic racism. But the film never makes any attempt to analyse or explain this pivotal, ingrained prejudice. It’s just a given, taken for granted – an approach which ends up feeling unsatisfactorily evasive. De Niro’s hard-ass commanding officer does eventually see sense, of course, supporting Brashear during a lengthy, vaguely ridiculous courtroom climax in which our hero proves his fitness by taking twelve agonising steps in full diving gear, having lost the bottom part of his leg in an accident some years before.

If the film remains bearable during its slow decline into such “inspirational” guff, that’s mainly thanks to the testosterone-heavy cast. De Niro has fun with a slightly toned-down version of ranting Max Cady from Cape Fear, and Powers Boothe and David Keith beef up the cast with no-nonsense cameos as military brass, while dependably lunkish McCallany (Fight Club, Three Kings) does enough to suggest he’d be an ideal Mike Hammer if anyone’s planning to remake Kiss Me, Deadly.

2nd February 2001

by Neil Young
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