Cuba Tackles Racism in the Navy
"Men of Honour" is one of those movies which sucks you in and carries you along on a wave of power and emotion as it tells the true story of Carl Brashear who was not only the first African American to become a US Navy Diver but also the first amputee to become a US Navy Diver. It is also a movie which is so good at sucking you in and getting an emotional response that any problems it has are washed over as all you remember is the powerful and inspirational story of Carl and his sheer determination to become a Master Diver, battling racism, injury and heart break to achieve his dream. But as you can assume from that, "Men of Honour" isn't perfect, there is over acting, under use of talent and some action scenes which edge on being cheesy but do you know what it doesn't matter because the story of Carl is so powerful so inspirational that you don't care that Robert De Niro looks like he is imitating Popeye in many a scene.
Having worked the same fields as his father Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr. - Instinct) joins the Navy on the promise of great things only to end up working as a cook in the galley of the USS Hoist. But his determination to succeed lifts him from the galley and eventually to the US Navy's Diver Training academy where being the only African American at the base he is confronted by racism, especially from Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro - Wag the Dog) who is determined to stop Carl from qualifying as a diver. But despite numerous obstacles in his way Carl passes out and becomes a diver but all that he has worked for appears to be ripped away when he suffers a freak accident which looks set to end his days as a diver and stop him from achieving his dream of becoming a Master Diver.
"Men of Honour" is a movie of two halves and starts at the end of what is the first half as we watch Master Chief Billy Sunday under arrest and seeing on TV Carl Brashear achieving his dream of becoming a serving US Navy Diver. It's just the entry point as soon the movie jumps back in time to 1943 and young Carl helping his father plough the field before then jumping on a few years to Carl joining the Navy. This first half of the movie basically focuses on the racial barriers which Carl faced, be it working as a cook aboard the USS Hoist or when he finally gets accepted to the US Navy Diving School. And at the same time it establishes how determined he is to succeed as he puts up with the abuse and unfairness of it all as Chief Billy Sunday sets out to make him fail.
The second half of "Men of Honour" again focuses on Carl's determination to succeed but whilst there is still the theme of racism present this second half focuses on his struggle to beat injury and become the first amputee to serve as a diver. Again it is all about Carl's sheer persistence but also brings the story around as we have Chief Billy Sunday turning from enemy to supporter assisting him in getting himself fit and proving he is fit to serve.
Now the thing about "Men of Honour" is that whilst you have these two sides of the story it is a movie which firmly sets out to inspire through the true story of Carl Brashear. How much fact and how much fiction there is I am not sure but it certainly does inspire and gets you firmly on the side of Carl whether he is dealing with racism or his comeback from injury. It is shall we say a little manipulative as director George Tillman Jr. never misses an opportunity to hit home the struggle which Carl faced but it works and it would take a cold person to watch this and not feel inspired and empowered by Carl's amazing story.
But here is the thing, "Men of Honour" is by no means a perfect movie and it has various problems such as some of the moments of drama bordering on the cheesy, feeling forced and manufactured. But the worst issue surprisingly comes from Robert De Niro who in Master Chief Billy Sunday creates a character which almost feels a caricature. Maybe the real Chief Billy Sunday was that extreme but the way De Niro screws up his face and bites down on his pipe makes him look like Popeye and it just doesn't feel right.
Aside from De Niro giving us Popeye, Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a very strong performances as Carl Brashear and gets across how determined he was to be all he could be. He does occasionally give us a bit too much machismo and wistful looking in the distance but the spirit of Brashear is there and is why "Men of Honour" is so watch able. But sadly the rest of the talent which includes Charlize Theron, Hal Holbrook and Michael Rapaport either over act or are underused especially Theron who makes the most of her small part as Sunday's wife. Ironically it is Aunjanue Ellis who has the fairly smallish part of Carl's wife who gives the most convincing performance because the mix of love for Carl and her growing impatience at his single mindedness is very real and very emotional.
What this all boils down to is that "Men of Honour" is a good movie which transcends it's various issues by being both a very powerful story and one which is inspirational. It is so inspirational that you end up not caring that Robert de Niro seems to be channelling Popeye in his characterisation and that some of the talent is seriously underused. And as such you get sucked in to the story of Carl Brashear who battled racism and injury to achieve his dream and become a Master Diver.