Men of Honor

Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Robert De Niro, Charlize Theron, Aunjanue Ellis, Hal Holbrook, Michael Rapaport, Powers Boothe, David Keith.
MPAA Rating: R for language.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
November 13, 2000

Master Chief Carl Brashear makes a great subject for a film. He was the first African-American to train as a diver in the U.S. Navy, and the first to achieve the prestigious rank of Master Diver. Like many pioneers, he was faced with incredible adversity, narrowly avoided death several times, and even lost a leg and still continued to serve. He achieved this goal at the cost of his health and his family. Unfortunately, few people know who he is, but filmmaker George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) has made an attempt at correcting this mistake.

His new film, Men of Honor, stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Brashear, who grew up as a poor farmer in the Midwest. He joined the Navy under the false pretenses of a great number of opportunities. Once he came out of basic training, during the early years of Truman's military integration, he found out that a black man has three options in the U.S. Navy: be a cook, be an officer's valet, or quit. Carl's father (Carl Lumbly), however, gave him this stern instruction: "Don't quit on me." It would have been easier for Carl to quit his kitchen detail and the Navy altogether, but he was determined to dive. In an act of great defiance, he dove off the deck of the U.S.S. Hoist to swim with the white sailors. He then swam to a buoy, evading the men trying to drag him out of the water, and managed to impress the Captain (Powers Boothe), even though he was thrown in the brig.

Carl received a recommendation to enter the Navy's top diving school in Bayonne, New Jersey. The head trainer there was Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), who was also on the Hoist, but suffered an embolism after a risky dive. Now he must train others, but he is not eager to train Carl. Neither is the school's commanding officer (Hal Holbrook), who insists that Carl fails the program.

This version of the story, as I understand it, is not entirely true. There was no Billy Sunday; he is a combination of at least two different people in Brashear's life. So, like many docudramas, Men of Honor has to make compromises for the sake of a coherent plot and brevity. It makes an interesting film, certainly an inspiring film, but not a great film. The audience can finally see the many brave things that Brashear has done, but getting to know him proves impossible.

Tillman's film, written by Scott Marshall Smith (making his screenwriting debut), is more concerned with highlighting certain emotional moments than filling in texture. Why does Carl put his career goals above his family? How does Chief Sunday go through this sudden transformation of character? Is it out of sympathy or respect? I know that at least Carl Brashear is a real person, with real dimension. He is still very much alive, and even acted as a technical advisor on the film. Didn't he want to share more than his military knowledge? How did he feel about his place in history, and what he had to sacrifice to get it?

Obviously, I wanted to know more. I didn't necessarily want a longer film. A better one would have been perfectly fine.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Men of Honor (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Men of Honor (2000) -- VHS
Men of Honor (2000) -- DVD
Men of Honor, a screenplay novelization by David Robbins -- Paperback
Men of Honor: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc


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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan