One of the great scenes in Men of Honor finds Robert De Niro, drunk in a bar, challenging new recruit Cuba Gooding Jr. to a contest to see who can hold their breath the longest. Hold their breath? What is this, second grade? No, it's Navy Diver Training where the ability to hold one's breath can mean life or death. And don't be surprised to find yourself holding your breath along with them.
Men of Honor is based on life of Carl Brashear, the first black Navy Diver. It follows his beginnings as a poor dirt farmer to his enlistment in the service, up through his accomplishments as a career Navy man. The trials he faced and the events of his life alone would make for a fine movie, but what makes Honor great is that it is also the story of Billy Sunday, played by De Niro, a career Navy man on the way down. In contrast with Brashear's steadfast loyalty and determination, we see a man who, though he holds the same base qualities, is crippled by alcohol, injury, and the prejudice of his generation. The fact that these two men, who on the surface seem so diametrically opposed, can become friends is just one of the triumphs in a movie full of them.
Cuba Gooding Jr., in the lead role, is superb. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise; since Jerry Maguire, nearly every thing he has put out has been great. We'll try to forgive him for Chill Factor. Here he plays Brashear with a fierce determination, that shows through in the character. Even when it threatens to pull his family apart, Brashear refuses to back down. Robert De Niro, is also fine, maybe even better than Gooding. His Sunday is a gritty, foul-mouthed redneck who, when he loses the ability to dive, has nothing but wounded pride to fall back on. I wouldn't be surprised if De Niro received an Oscar nomination for this role. There are a number of big names in small roles here. Hal Holbrook, Powers Boothe, and Charlize Theron have little more than cameos, but it's fun to watch them while they're there.
Men of Honor is a moving, powerful film with an important story to tell. On the surface, it seems like the message is about racism, and the courage to overcome it. That's part of it, but it's not all. We've seen lots of movies about the horrors of racism and people who had the courage to overcome it. Films from Glory, to Mississippi Burning, to To Kill a Mockingbird, have brought that story home, many more effectively than this one. The message is out, and while I don't think we should stop talking about it, I am glad to start seeing some films about the lives of some of these courageous people that don't focus solely on the racism aspect. No great person is the sum of just one kind of adversity, and it's nice to see Hollywood address that. At the same time, don't expect a Tom Clancy-style, long, detailed history of the Naval Diver Program. They give you just technical information enough to keep up, and that may frustrate the technophiles in the audience. For the rest of us, it's just the right mix of Navy jargon and human drama.
As is always the question with movies based on real people's lives, I wonder how much of this is true, and how much is created for the drama. When The Hurricane came out last year, the shouts over the inaccuracies started before the first audience ever made it to their seats. I haven't heard any of that this time around, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. I hold that a movie is a movie and everything you see should be taken with at least a grain of salt. That said, if they made any of this movie up, I forgive them, it's still a lot of fun to watch.
One complaint? The name. It sounds like the result of the Hollywood Name Yer Movie Wheel that has words like "Ultimate", "Limit", "Danger", "Game" and "Honor" on it. Spin the wheel and you might get "Ultimate Limit Game", or you might get "Men of Honor". Anyway, I'm splitting hairs here. It's a good movie; well made and honorable. Grade: A
Men of Honor is rated R for language, and isolated incidents of violence. However, in my opinion, parents should not be scared off by this rating. This is a positive movie in every sense of the word. It irritates me that movies like this, movies that we should be taking our kids to see are rated R, and movies like The Sixth Day with Arnold Schwarzenegger, where someone gets killed nearly every ten minutes, get rated PG-13. You have to wonder what the folks over at the MPAA are thinking.
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