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That Sinking Feeling

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2000


    'Men of Honor' Cuba Gooding Jr. faces his Navy mentor (Robert De Niro) in "Men of Honor."
(20th Century Fox)
The best part about "Men of Honor" is the real story lurking beneath.

There really was – actually, there is – a Carl Brashear who left his sharecropping Kentucky life for the U.S. Navy in 1948 – the year President Truman desegregated the military. Brashear would become the Navy's first African American Master Diver, despite a seventh-grade education and hostile racism almost every step of the way.

When a severely damaged leg threatened to end his career, he opted for a prosthetic limb, just so he could continue. A character like that, not to mention the opportunity to present a positive African American on-screen, just screams for a movie.

Unfortunately, "Men of Honor," starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Brashear and Robert De Niro as his snarling mentor, Billy Sunday, takes a fascinating subject and reduces it to lukewarm Hollywood formula. Director George Tillman Jr. (who made "Soul Food") and screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith have made an earnest but C-plus tribute to an A-grade character. And the C-plus is mostly thanks to vigorous performances from Gooding and De Niro.

With the blessing of his sharecropper father, Brashear joins the U.S. Navy, only to find himself appointed to kitchen duty. It takes an auspicious day at sea – when Brashear impulsively beats a white sailor in a freestyle swimming race – for things to change.

A certain Capt. Pullman (Powers Boothe) recognizes Brashear's stamina, appoints him to the Search and Rescue Unit, then writes a recommendation for him to attend diving school.

But the odds are stacked against him at the Bayonne, N.J., diving school. His dormitory colleagues refuse to bunk with him. And the head of the school, known as Mr. Pappy (Hal Holbrook), instructs diving instructor Billy Sunday (De Niro) to make sure this one does not graduate.

Sunday, an embittered former deep-sea diver, also believes Brashear shouldn't be going above his station in life. But he can't help respecting Brashear's spunk and dedication. It's a cinch that Sunday's going to be in his corner eventually.

The movie, which covers a lot of narrative ground in the 1950s and 1960s, includes Brashear's courtship of his soon-to-be wife, Jo (Aunjanue Ellis); friendships with the shy Snowhill (Michael Rapaport) and Sunday's woozy, peppy wife (Charlize Theron); and run-ins with military racists and Capt. Hartigan (David Keith), an oily bureaucrat who's unsympathetic to Brashear's request – later in his career – to continue his deep-sea salvage missions with a prosthetic leg.

You have to hand it to Gooding for busting his gut and giving 110 percent to this role.

The scene in which he attempts to show Capt. Hartigan that he can walk unassisted with a 200-pound diving suit seems a perfect metaphor for his acting approach. He's all dedication, no matter how formulaic the movie.

But as Sunday, a man capable of beating someone into a pulp as easily as making them laugh with a risque joke, De Niro's the scene stealer. And his larger-than-life character never even existed. A composite of various people the real Brashear met during his career, Sunday's a fictional dirigible, pumped with De Niro charisma.

"Men of Honor" is clearly one part truth and many parts movie hyperbole. Brashear's romance with Jo, a doctoral student who tutors Brashear so he can pass his written tests, seems to take just a few moments from first meeting to marriage.

As for Mr. Pappy – whether he was real or not – he's a mysterious, remote figure with more tics and twitches than Peter O'Toole around closing time. He heads a shipload of Central Casting bigots who glare with squinty eyes at Brashear.

By my informal count, four black positive characters are pitted against an infinity of racists, with only two significant white men (De Niro and Rapaport) in the no man's land between. The problem is, storytelling like this weighs heavier than a standard diving suit, and it's really up to you, if you're ready to take the plunge.

"Men of Honor" (PG-13, 129 minutes) – Contains racial epithets, violence and a particularly gruesome tragedy.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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