Drowning in clichés and political correctness, "Men of Honor" ignores the heroism of its inspiration.
Sadly, "Men of Honor" is another case where Hollywood just can't leave well enough alone. Attempting to tell the true story of Carl Brashear, the Navy's first African-American Master Diver, the filmmakers end up fashioning a manipulative Superman tale that overlooks its hero's humanity. The best part of the movie is Brashear's real story, which seems to lurk just below the surface. If ever a man's life deserved to be a movie, that life belongs to Brashear. Yes, he left his sharecropping life in Kentucky to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1948, the year President Truman desegregated the military. Yes, he vowed to become a Navy diver. And yes, despite only a seventh-grade education and having to face discrimination and racism every step of the way, Brashear achieved that dream. But wait, when a severely damaged leg injured in another heroic showing underwater threatened to end his career, Brashear strapped on a prosthesis and persevered yet again. Unfortunately, director George Tillman Jr. (who made the enjoyable ensemble "Soul Food") and screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith have made a so-so movie out of a superior life. The reason the movie works at all is due to the performances of its stars. Cuba Gooding Jr. nearly succeeds in living up to Smith's view of Brashear as a flawless superhero who never met a bigot he couldn't defeat, outlast or outsmart. At one point, Brashear attempts to show that he can walk unassisted while dressed out in the 200-pound-diving gear. This scene becomes a metaphor for Gooding's undeniable commitment to give his all to a role, regardless of how formulaic the movie might be. Even though Robert De Niro appears to be recycling the racist stepfather role he played in "This Boy's Life," his performance as Brashear's grudging mentor, the fictionalized Master Chief Billy Sunday, is still a force to be reckoned with. Equally, despite appearing in only a few scenes, Charlize Theron creates a lasting impression as Sunday's much-younger wife, Gwen. To give Tillman and Smith their due, "Men of Honor" covers a lot of ground as it throws a much-deserved spotlight on the institutionalized racism in the military during the '50s and '60s. Not only do we watch as Brashear moves from kitchen duty to a spot in diving school, there's also his courtship with his wife-to-be , Jo (Aunjanue Ellis), a burgeoning friendship with the shy Snowhill (Michael Rappaport); and run-ins with military racists: Mr. Pappy (Hal Holbrook), who wants to ensure Brashear washes out, and the slimy Capt. Hartigan (David Keith). One part truth and two parts Hollywood hyperbole, "Men of Honor" is a mildly entertaining though manipulative movie that seriously gets in trouble when it turns heavy-handed. The movie's real downfall comes with its big courtroom scene. Once the issue of racism has receded to the background, Tillman and Smith seem at a loss. But instead of returning to Brashear's real experiences, they decide to wrench as much emotion from the audience as possible with a hokey courtroom denouement. Audiences deserve better than this middling, schmaltzy effort that opts for the tried-and-true cliché over genuine heroism. Carl Brashear also deserves better.
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