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'Men of Honor'

Likable 'Men of Honor' builds on the usual military formula

Friday, November 10, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Men of Honor" is one of those old-fashioned military movies that draws its conflicts in broad strokes, renders its characters somewhat larger than life and tries to inspire viewers through the struggles of the lead character against incredible odds to achieve what seems like an impossible goal.

'Men Of Honor'

RATING: R for language.

STARRING: Cuba Gooding Jr., Robert De Niro, Charlize Theron.

DIRECTOR: George Tillman Jr.




It may not swim far below the surface, but the movie steams ahead on the indefatigable drive of its protagonist. Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a man who simply will not take no for an answer.

The inspiration may be found in the fact that this is a true story. Carl Brashear was the first African-American to become a U.S. Navy master diver. "Men of Honor" tells how he did it and delineates the obstacles he had to overcome.

Much of it involved racism, although it is the commander of his first ship, played by Powers Boothe, who agrees to recommend him for diving school. But the newly desegregated postwar Navy would not yield easily to Brashear's dream.

His training officer, master chief diver Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), is a profane troublemaker from the South who tries to discourage Brashear at every turn. The commanding officer, an elderly and largely implausible nut case known as Pappy (Hal Holbrook), orders Sunday to flunk the brash youngster.

But Brashear won't give him an excuse to do so. He never erupts in anger or complains. In danger of failing his written tests, Brashear pulls all-nighters with the help of a pretty librarian (Aunjanue Ellis). He endures ostracism, insults and sabotaged equipment. When Sunday asks him why he wants it so badly, Brashear replies, "Because someone told me I couldn't have it."

But he also promised his father (Carl Lumbly) that he would never quit. And, frankly, he seems to have been smitten with the idea of becoming a diver once he saw the uniform -- a big, gleaming diver's suit that makes the man wearing it look like some sort of superhero.

Ultimately, Sunday must decide between his orders and his honor, knowing that the future of his own career hangs in the balance. Sunday's descent into a hell of his own making is more harrowing than anything he ever encountered in the ocean depths. But Brashear also remains capable of shocking us in terms of how far he will go to continue his dream.

In the end, the movie, directed with perhaps a certain amount of hero worship by George Tillman Jr. ("Soul Food"), provides redemption for both men -- and a full share of formulaic moments, including the inevitable climactic courtroom scene in which Brashear must prove himself one more time.

Gooding, true to form, makes Brashear immensely likable and sympathetic but also conveys the man's obsessiveness. De Niro rages like a madman and intimidates as only he can, but he also finds Sunday's human -- and humane -- qualities. Charlize Theron plays his long-suffering wife in an accent as shaky as her heels and a performance about as convincing.

If the drama remains skin-deep, "Men of Honor" succeeds at measuring the hearts of its protagonists and delineating the content of their characters.

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