There’s a moment at the conclusion of Men of Honor when an entire courtroom stands up and cheers Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) with the implication that his entire life has led to this crescendo. It’s a cheap and all-too-familiar device: to dismiss adversity in a swell of unanimous approval. Life is messier than that, but director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) and screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith opt for the noble Hollywood high road to tell a true story of individual struggle against entrenched oppression.
Son of a Kentucky sharecropper, Brashear was the first black man to become a Navy diver in a military desegregated in name only. In Men of Honor, his tale of strength and obstinacy is painted in golden heroic hues. Fortunately, Cuba Gooding Jr., embodying stubborn defiance, and Robert De Niro (as the volatile Billy Sunday, Brashear’s tormenting mentor) combat the saccharine with sharp, unsentimental performances.
Brashear and Sunday are markedly different men, but they share a few key traits. Both are addicted to deep-sea diving (they revel in the difficulty, danger and thrill), and pursue it with a selfish determination that damages their personal lives. While Brashear struggles against the white establishment which requires him to be twice as good to receive half as much, Sunday is an open and defiant bigot. Yet they both adhere to the military code of honor, and the grudging respect that develops between them over 25 years is hard-won and steadfast.
Men of Honor is an old-fashioned epic about an ordinary man whose force of will results in Herculean feats. It’s the myth of America: An individual willing to dream and prepared to sacrifice can achieve even the most impossible goal. Even if he has to do battle with America to get there.
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