Liane Bonin
November 13, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro aren’t the only stars in the ads for ”Men of Honor” (in theaters). Commercials for the military drama about real life deep sea diver Carl Brashear (Gooding) also give a hearty plug to the U.S. Navy, marking the first time the military and a movie studio have joined forces in a marketing campaign. ”In my opinion, this movie is a good recruiting tool for the Navy,” says Brashear, now 70, who triumphed over racial prejudice and the loss of a leg to become a master diver. ”I think it will change a lot of people’s perceptions.”

But that doesn’t mean ”Men of Honor” is glossing over the Navy’s history of racism during the ’50s and ’60s. Though the U.S. military was officially desegregated in 1948, Brashear — who enlisted that year — was, like most African American sailors, given a dreary assignment. During the next two years, while working in a ship’s galley as a cook, he wrote more than 100 letters to the powers that be before his application to dive school was accepted. When Brashear finally began the training program, one of his superiors, a master chief Navy diver, proceeded to taunt and torture him, expecting him to give up. (Press materials describe De Niro’s character, Master Chief Navy Diver Billy Sunday, as a composite of the military men Brashear clashed with over the years.) ”That’s the way it happened, and it’s nothing for the Navy to be ashamed of,” Brashear tells EW.com. ”We all know it’s not like that now. Just like society, it still has a long way to go, but there’s been a lot of change.”

The movie’s grittier scenes didn’t deter the Navy from lending technical advisors and an authentic warship, the USS Navaho, to the film. ”We embrace our history, and we don’t want to run away from it,” Navy Lieutenant Commander Darren Morton, the film’s Department of Defense project officer, tells EW.com. ”We want to look at it, learn from it, and move on. The movie isn’t about exposing a social problem in our history, but about this person who overcame social ills and physical disabilities to become a hero of the U.S. Navy. And we think that’s great.”

These days the Navy needs all the heroes it can get. With a strong economy and more teenagers pursuing college than military careers, all branches of the military are struggling to meet recruitment quotas. In 1998, the Navy fell 7,000 short of its goal of 55,000 new recruits, and last year the Army offered a $6,000 signing bonus (over and above an existing offer of $12,000 in other incentives and $50,000 in scholarships) to anyone who joined before the end of year deadline. Overall, the armed forces have seen a steady drop in new recruits since 1997. ”I guess we see more negative things about the military on the news now, and see that more on TV,” says Brashear. ”I just don’t know how or what we can do to show that we are necessary and that what we do is necessary.”

The Navy is hoping that copromotions with movies like ”Men of Honor” will do the trick. Morton notes that the successes of ”Top Gun” and ”An Officer and a Gentleman” have resulted in significant spikes in recruitment statistics. Since the Navy’s target audience, avowedly heterosexual 18 to 24 year olds, is also a desirable demographic to movie studios, expect to see plenty more cross promotional deals in upcoming military dramas. Morton mentions that Disney’s WWII epic ”Pearl Harbor” (due next Memorial Day weekend) and Fox’s ”Behind Enemy Lines” (in theaters next year) might make the cut. ”But it would have to be something that fits just right,” cautions Jeffrey Godsick, executive vice president of publicity and promotions for Fox. ”The U.S. military isn’t interested in a tie in for the sake of a tie in. The movie has to really mirror what they stand for.” Meanwhile, pushing the gun toting arm of the government has a lot more rules than, say, selling burger and fry combos. The Navy (as well as any other military branch) can’t legally endorse a film. So, even though commercials may seem to be giving ”Men of Honor” a Navy thumbs up, you’ll never hear an overt plug.

Even if the studio’s slick advertising campaign doesn’t do the trick, at least ”Men of Honor” is a hit with some people who care about the military. Aside from enlisted men who told Brashear that they were moved to tears by the film, there was another important moviegoer who had a highly positive reaction. President Clinton recently sat next to Brashear at a private screening: ”He said to me, ‘That was one good movie!”’

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