The utterly generic title attached to this new military drama, about the personal and professional struggles of first African-American to break the color barrier in the Navy’s diving program, is somehow emblematic of the sadly mediocre character of the picture. As crushingly earnest as the recent “Remember the Titans” but even more cliched and less compelling, “Men of Honor” is essentially the cinematic equivalent of those ever-so-earnest TV movies about overcoming pervasive discrimination through sheer grit and boundless determination; the fact that it’s been gussied up with big stars and a sizable budget merely accentuates its hollowness. It might be about a master diver, but as a drama it surely doesn’t go very deep, and it sinks awfully fast.
Cuba Gooding, Jr., plays, with his usual vacuous enthusiasm, Carl Brashear, a poor Kentucky farmboy who, upon enlisting in the recently-integrated service in 1948, soon tires of the mess-hall duty usually assigned to those of his race and, after proving his mettle as a swimmer, gains entrance to the Navy’s Dive School; his ambition is to achieve the exalted rank of Master Diver. He has to confront numerous obstacles, however, including his poor educational foundation and widespread animosity from his fellow pupils, all white. Most notably, he’s faced with opposition from the tough-as-nails, redneck training officer Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), whose rage at having suffering a debilitating injury which forced him from sea duty seems to be redirected at the recruit. Sunday’s belligerence is exceeded by that of the senile camp commandant known as Pappy (a doddering Hal Holbrook); and after a fashion that’s good news for Brashear, because the only thing about Sunday that exceeds his personal venom is his hatred of authority and his sense of honor. Ultimately that’s what will persuade him to mitigate his opposition and grudgingly help the recruit survive a final, harrowing test. The latter segment of the story, set some years afterward, reunites the two old antagonists when Brashear’s career is threatened by an injury similar to that which sidelined Sunday, and the old salt reemerges to help his former student fight against the pencil-pushing mentality of the New Navy to retain his rank–honorable men of the Old School standing together against the by-the-numbers approach of upstart bureaucrats. The courtroom finale recalls earlier pictures like “A Few Good Men,” but the issues it raises are far more lightweight and the matters at stake less compelling, though politically extremely correct.
Within the confines of this calculatedly uplifting plot, the picture is professionally assembled but utterly conventional. George Tillman, Jr.’s direction is leaden, never bypassing a chance for overemphasis, and it’s abetted by Mark Isham’s bombastic score, which swells and swoons to insure that you can’t possibly miss any of the melodramatic points being hammered home. Under these circumstances the cast can’t do much more than tread water. Gooding is monochromatically determined, and Aunjanue Ellis pretty much wasted as the young librarian who helps him study (after an embarrassingly unreal courtship by Brashear) and eventually becomes his wife. There are decent supporting turns by a comparatively restrained Michael Rapaport (as the only recruit who befriends Brashear; by Powers Boothe, David Keith and Glynn Turman as officers under whom our hero serves at sea; and by Carl Lumbly, as Carl’s father. On the other hand, Holbrook almost gums himself to death as the racist commandant, and David Conrad is irritatingly smug and priggish as the lieutenant who’s instrumental in both reducing Sunday’s rank and endangering Brashear’s later career. (He’s pretty limp in a role that demands a really hissable villain.)
By far the saddest element of “Men of Honor,” though is watching De Niro struggle with the role of Sunday. De Niro’s a great actor, of course, but even he needs a character to fill, and a seething drill sergeant who says things like “I am God” to his recruits isn’t even a sketch–it’s a caricature. De Niro tries to compensate by strutting about and spitting out his lines while inventing bits of business to take up space, but nothing works. One rule of thumb is particularly applicable here: when a star spends much of his performance fiddling with a corncob pipe–lighting it, puffing it, looking at it lovingly, even telling his co-star the story behind it–it’s a truism that he’s doing so because there’s simply no role there for him to sink his teeth into. The principle is clearly operative here. Perhaps De Niro needs to begin choosing his parts a bit more carefully and acting somewhat less frequently–even a reputation as exalted as his might not survive too many mistakes like “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and this. (His difficulties here seem to extend, moreover, to Charlize Theron, playing his young wife. In an unflattering wig, she nearly disappears beside her persistently overwrought co-star.)
Carl Brashear is undoubtedly a person of real courage and accomplishment, but “Men of Honor,” while well-intentioned and possessed of considerable cinematic sheen, isn’t really worthy of him, or of De Niro. Given the subject matter, it’s a shame that Hollywood’s treatment of it proves so terribly shallow.