REAL-LIFE HEROES generally make for dull films, especially when said hero is alive and the details of said life can't be embellished for the big screen. Take a bastard like Patton and you've got a movie. Take an incident like Custer's last stand and you've got a villain. Here, however, Soul Food director George Tillman Jr.'s earnest desire to present a role model for striving black kids comes across like a Navy recruiting commercial with bigger stars and a bigger budget. Accordingly, pioneering African-American diver Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is lionized with only a few warts and self-doubts, and his triumphs over adversity never seem less than inevitable.
MEN OF HONOR
directed by George Tillman Jr. with Robert De Niro, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Charlize Theron opens November 10 at Metro, Oak Tree, and Pacific Place
The son of a Kentucky sharecropper, young Carl is admonished, "Don't end up like me," by his poor, noble father. Thus inculcated with ambition and strong family values (if not much of an education), the lad enlists in the Navy. There, in the '50s, although the armed services have technically been desegregated, Carl predictably chafes at his assignment as a cook. Fortunately, his strong swimming ability earns him the recommendation of his captain and a place in the Navy's elite diving school in Bayonne, NJ. At the gates he reencounters a figure from aboard ship: sneering redneck psycho Billy Sunday, played by none other than Robert De Niro in full Cape Fear mode.
Finally, you think, the movie's about to begin. We have a likable, fresh-faced hero whom we want to succeed, and we have a salty, mean SOB who's determined to stop him. (Charlize Theron is thrown in as De Niro's much younger boozing blonde trophy wife to lend a little sex appeal to the otherwise chaste picture.) The promise of such conflict is never realized, however, as with so many of Honor's rote-scripted scenes. Clearly modeled on An Officer and a Gentleman, the training camp sequences hardly surprise us with the hazing and racism Carl encounters. It is the '50s, after all—with Jackie Robinson's exploits broadcast on the radio to parallel Carl's own efforts—and society only moves so fast.
Don't tell that to Carl, whose relentless drive later threatens his marriage. Honor's pivotal scene takes place not between De Niro and Gooding, but between Carl and his fianc饬 as the two debate how best to succeed in a racist society. Put your head down and work, she says; stand up and fight, he counters. Honor is nothing less than admirable in portraying the latter course—without actually following that path. Instead it plays it safe as a movie, reconciling all parties and tensions in a feel-good yarn of the sea.