"To thine own self be true" is the popular message that reverberates throughout this stirring true tale of Carl Brashear, the first African-American to become a master diver in the U.S. Navy. And in evincing his personal saga of heroism, director George Tillman, Jr. successfully realises an old-fashioned film for contemporary tastes.
But while the flag is enthusiastically waved throughout the swell proceedings of this entertaining throwback, it is tacitly underscored that loyalty to land can only be admired if it is the servant of personal liberty. Portrayed with exemplary skill and sensitivity by Cuba Gooding, Jr., Navy man Brashear's travail is, above all, a test of civil rights, self-actualisation and human courage.
There is plenty to chew on here. And Robert De Niro as Master Chief Billy Sunday, diving instructor extraordinaire and intermittent reprobate personified, makes the mastication twice as much fun. Among the many angles of thespic possibilities that Mr. De Niro applies in shaping his enigmatic character, he is to his deep sea diving students what Lou Gossett, Jr. was to his would-be fly boys in An Officer and a Gentleman. You know the drill: "Look to your right, look to your left. Two-thirds of you guys aren't going to graduate from this course." And of course Mr. Sunday is none too thrilled with the prospect of training this potential barrier crasher. Still, it is a testament to De Niro's talent and skill that we never truly believe Billy Sunday is a bigot, even when the script tells us so.
Nope. This Melvillian character's inner devils run too far afield for him to be concerned with the mundaneness of racial prejudice. Once a great diver and war hero applauded by General MacArthur himself, Chief Sunday is confounded by an injury that has relegated him to instructor status. He also has an insatiable ego, a drinking problem, and a wonderfully curious marriage to a fallen rich girl (Charlize Theron) that reads right out of literature. It's a fine piece of realistic side business that keeps you guessing.
Mr. Gooding's entreating passion, matched by De Niro's diverting canniness, makes for delightfully engaging chemistry. For while at first blush both characters seem to be from disparate worlds, writer Scott Marshal Smith's effectively written script says look again; and then look once more. Thus the relationship that develops between student and teacher isn't your usual, off-the-shelf hokum. Director Tillman steers quite clear of making this a buddy-buddy film in the traditional sense.
True, the latter portions of Men of Honour can be legitimately criticised for caving-in to Hollywood convention. But that's okay. It would sound a much falser note if the director attempted subtlety in a film so full of profound import and heartfelt emotions. And after weathering it through Carl Brashear's trials and tribulations, we're much more apt to forgive the movie its soothing indulgences.
The big scoop of schmaltz Tillman loads on toward the end further gives the biopic the inspiring look and feel of yesteryear's movies with a message. However, the filmmaker zealously prevents the relationship at the core of his work from ever slipping into garden-variety melodrama. That's where he draws the line. The unique genuineness created between Gooding and De Niro is the movie's true power. Gooding is the righteous hero, while De Niro is the wily antihero. They are the picture's Yin and Yang. If they were a comedy team instead of a dramatic duo, Gooding would be the straight man. He sets it up, and De Niro takes it home.
Supporting performances, generally supplied as background save for Miss Theron's puzzling bride, complement the big doings in the centre ring. They consist of various and sundry bigots who, for one unexplained reason or another, don't want Carl to become the Navy's version of Jackie Robinson. Sadly, in the early going his only ally is another outcast. Snowhill, a fellow recruit also with deep-sea aspirations played by Michael Rapaport, is a stutterer. "What's the matter?" Brashear asks him after the twenty or so other sailors refuse to bunk with him. "Don't you hate me, too?" And in a humorous testament to the traditions of his home state, a flustered Snowhill quite innocently responds, "N-n-no, I'm from Wisconsin." Director Tillman exhibits how flippantly unsubstantiated prejudice can be.
Art direction sensitive to the movie's purposes works to establish mood, time and place, whether during a seat-edged underwater scene or a particularly atmospheric moment on a street just outside the Bayonne (N.J.) Navy Yard. But while other aspects of the production may not be quite as perfect as the performances given by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Robert De Niro, you can rely on Men of Honour to do the right thing.