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The most dreaded words that can be heard during a movie trailer are "based on a true story" or "inspired by actual events." Such code phrases usually signal that film makers have taken a thin thread of fact and embroidered it into a garish tapestry of their own invention. Men of Honor is touted as "inspired by the life of Carl Brashear," the first African-American to achieve the rank of Master Chief Diver. The particulars of Brashear’s life are impressive – he fought racism, injustice, and a debilitating injury to achieve a goal reached by very few. Unfortunately, Men of Honor emphasizes "inspired" over "actual events", favoring dramatic impact over the truth. The result is a film that often strains credulity and cheapens Brashear’s accomplishments through its heavy-handed manipulation and sentimentality.
In real life, Carl Brashear (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) grew up a poor sharecropper’s son in rural Kentucky during the Depression and joined the Navy in 1948. Like most African-Americans serving in that era, he was assigned to duty as a mess steward, but when he first saw divers in their heavy brass helmets, he was hooked on underwater work. He started a letter-writing campaign that resulted in his being appointed to Dive Training School and qualifying as a diver, a notable achievement at the time. His career progressed through the ranks until 1966, when he coordinated the high-profile search for a hydrogen bomb lost in a B-52 crash off the coast of Palomares, Spain. The bomb was recovered, but a salvage mishap resulted in a debilitating injury that eventually led to Brashear’s left leg being amputated below the knee. Navy brass pressed Brashear to retire, but instead he fought the regulations and eventually reached the rarely-attained rank of Master Chief.
Now, this is inspiring stuff – but director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) is never content to let Men of Honor tell its story without always laying on a thick layer of inspiration and hokum, building events into EVENTS. Over the course of the film there are no less than four separate Rocky-style sequences as Brashear sweats his way through physical training and academic study obstacles. 99.44% of the people Brashear encounters are bigots, thwarting his every move. Brashear’s parents are humble and poor, yet noble – of course. Most characters don’t speak, they pose and make speeches. A climactic courtroom scene involves not one but two dramatic entrances and a thunderous standing ovation. The film’s many "inspirational" scenes are merely set next to each other, there’s little effort to link them together with anything resembling narrative flow. And in the film’s most ridiculous fabrication, all of Brashear’s adversaries over the course of his career are rolled into a single fictional character, Billy Sunday (Robert DeNiro). Expecting anyone to believe that one individual would be Brashear’s evil nemesis for close to twenty years – and then eventually his friend and benefactor – is ludicrous.
This use of a composite is made even less believable by the shallowness of the character – it’s a thin caricature – and by DeNiro’s cartoonish performance as Sunday. Walking with a rolling gait, gnawing on an ancient corncob pipe and screwing his face into gargoyle-like contortions, he appears to be channeling Popeye. Charlize Theron appears in her second forlorn appendage role of the month (after her debutante in Bagger Vance) by appearing as Sunday’s long-suffering Navy wife. She’s got more than a few pounds and a large measure of looks over Olive Oyl, but doesn’t serve much more of a purpose other than filling her eyes with tears and staring into the middle distance in anguish over something that husband Billy has done.
As Brashear, Cuba Gooding Jr. is handicapped by spending a large part of the film inside a diving helmet, but even when he’s topside never gives much of a clue to the workings of his personality. He portrays steely determination with a particularly blank lock-jawed stare, the tougher the situation the more tightly he grits his teeth. The rest of the time he looks like a puzzled choir boy, and, next to DeNiro’s bombast, often seems to disappear. The writing of Brashear’s character is equally arid – aside from determination and strength there’s little shown of any other facets of his personality.
Men of Honor takes Carl Brashear’s life of accomplishment and bravery and reduces it to the level of an ABC After School Special. It’s a visual Classic Comics or Cliff’s Notes – the major facts are there, but they’re drawn with crayons instead of a fountain pen. It’s a film that makes one want to head for the library afterwards to find out what really happened.
– Bob Aulert