Carl Brashear, now 70, is the son of a Kentucky sharecropper; he joined the U.S. Navy in 1948, the year President Truman desegregated the military; Brashear lost half his left leg during a recovery expedition in 1966; he became the first black Master Diver in Naval history in 1970; he went on to become Master Chief, the Navy's highest rank for an enlisted man.
Men of Honor marches proudly through this résumé, as determination overcomes adversity right in front of the camera. This old-fashioned heroic biography about a man who broke barriers of race and physical handicap has the burnished, dark-palette look and feel of a four-square, military-sanctioned, 1950s biopic inspirational, crisply starched, on parade. Directed by George Tillman Jr. (whose 1997 Soul Food celebrated old-fashioned, heroic, African-American family life), the movie is educational and upstanding, a little overacted and more than a little overdramatized. But it's honorable. Compared with the sermonizing of the similarly structured Remember the Titans, it's a model of restraint and that's taking into account the scene where a one-legged man walks across a courtroom wearing a massive diving suit while onlookers weep.
More specifically, half of Honor's Oscar-winning star bill is restrained. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Brashear with a dignity and straight-backed posture that's as proud as football star Rod Tidwell was wily and brash in Jerry Maguire. It's hard to know whether Gooding, working in the presence of the subject himself (as key military consultant on the film), is indeed representing the man's manner or whether he's so constrained by awe for the fellow that the actor compacts all of Brashear's determination into a tensed-up mouth. (At times, Gooding appears to imitate Denzel Washington's familiar physical expressions of dignity, his level gaze of rightousness.) Gooding's Brashear stands tall even when he sleeps, let alone when he bids goodbye to his poor laborer father (Carl Lumbly) before leaving the farm, or when he courts the elegant medical student who becomes his supportive wife (Aunjanue Ellis).
In contrast, no such biographical niceties hamper Robert De Niro. He plays Master Chief Navy Diver Billy Sunday, a white Southern daredevil and sumbitch instructor who starts out discriminatin' and whose egotism and reflexive racism nearly lead to his student's death on more than one occasion. But Sunday is also honorable enough to pass Brashear on a diving test against orders from a higher-up, at severe cost to his own career. And years later, the ornery cuss helps his star pupil overcome the prejudices of a pencil-pushing-weasel officer of ''the new Navy.''
Sunday, however, is a fiction. He may represent a composite of racist white Navy men, but he doesn't exist. He's a hollerin', snarlin', hard-drinkin' device of a man used to represent redemption. Mostly, he's an opportunity for De Niro to bay a bit, his face contorted in a U-turn of a scowl. De Niro is as unchecked as Gooding is pinched, and he turns in one of those interesting but slightly crazed performances that probably feel really thrilling on the set but end up looking out of proportion, a solo star turn, on the screen the very opposite of the relaxed ensemble work De Niro's been doing lately in comedies like Meet the Parents.
While the filmmakers are at it, Sunday is given a hard-drinking, inexplicably rich, vaguely trampy but soft younger wife played, with a drawl straight out of Bagger Vance, by hard-working cover girl of the moment Charlize Theron. She wears her lipstick smudged, but her heart is as good as her cocktail dresses. If Sunday isn't drawn to scale, two other white villains are caricatures who would have been more at home as comic relief on M*A*S*H than in a serious American history lesson. Channeling the dotty antics of Jonathan Winters, Hal Holbrook potters around dusting medals and petting a lapdog, as an apparently bonkers but also vicious coot who presides over the Navy Dive School. (He's the one who demotes Sunday for graduating Brashear rather than all but killing him.)
And although he appears to base his performance on the haughty-coward act of Joaquin Phoenix, David Conrad can't do much to salvage the role of the desk-jockey lieutenant who presides over a hearing to determine if there's room in the sleek new Navy for active service by an amputee.
In training to prove there is, a prosthetic-wearing Bra-shear does push-ups in the sunset while Sunday provides moral support. For these men of honor, this is victory at sea. And for one old-fashioned moment, we watch a man whose accomplishments can fill the big screen. B-