Men of Honor is cookie-cutter formulaic. The screenplay is a sequence of scenes that are so pat, so self-contained, that you can describe them in five words or less: the Father’s Advice scene, the Winning the Bully’s Respect scene, the Real-World Test of Skills scene. Men of Honor is not a bad movie, but it is not an original movie.
Meet Carl Brashear
R for language, violence
Men of Honor is based on a true story. Cuba Gooding, Jr., plays Carl Brashear, one of the first black men in the desegregated U.S. Navy and the first black man to become a Navy diver.
Carl’s father wants him to become something more than just another tenant farmer. When a Navy recruiter comes to town, Carl and his father see an opportunity for him to escape the rural lifestyle.
In the Navy
Carl’s first tour of duty is in a ship’s kitchen. It’s an unglamorous assignment, but it exposes him to the opportunities for swimming and diving in the Navy. His natural talent as a swimmer catches the eye of an officer, and Carl quickly moves up from cook to Rescue Swimmer. That first step gives Carl the confidence to pursue an even bigger dream: becoming a Master Diver. Carl is eventually admitted to the navy’s diving school, in spite of the rampant racism that tries to keep him out.
Robert De Niro plays Billy Sunday, a Master Diver himself, taken permanently out of commission because of injuries. Sunday would much rather be diving than teaching, and his resentment goes nicely with his prejudice and racism. But in spite of his own prejudice, Sunday is impressed and awed by Carl.
The Race Card
Racism is one of the central conflicts in Men of Honor. Because Brashear is the first black man to rise through the ranks of the navy dive school, he faces pervasive, cruel, and unfair challenges. The way the film deals with racism feels a little polished and smoothed. For example, the worst examples of racism are concentrated most heavily in one or two evil characters.
The message is a little heavy-handed sometimes, but it’s counterbalanced by Gooding’s positive, upbeat portrayal. Because of Gooding, the film’s tone is one of positive change instead of brooding anger and resentment. Gooding’s portrayal shows that you can beat the bastards best by not wasting your energy responding to them.
Gooding and De Niro
I find myself thinking once again that Gooding’s performance is better than the film deserved. The last time I found myself thinking that was after watching Instinct, in which Gooding plays a psychologist trying to connect with a psychotic Anthony Hopkins. At every key emotional point (and there are many), Gooding carries the scene with his performance.
|It’s a free country... mostly.|
— Robert De Niro as Billy Sunday
There was great energy between De Niro and Gooding. Because the two were more often adversaries than friends, the electricity really jumped between them. When they do finally end up as “friends,” their previous hatred somehow strengthens their bond.
A Teflon Movie
As I said, Men of Honor is very formulaic. Squint your eyes a little and it looks a lot like Top Gun, complete with hotshot classmates, hard-nosed teachers, shy friends, and an ultimate test in the real world. Each too-perfect scene plays exactly as specified in the Screenwriting 101 handbook. Some might argue that makes the movie flawless. For me, it makes the movie safe and boring.
You might say that Men of Honor is a Teflon movie. So many parts of it are done so smoothly that it’s hard to find a fault that will stick. If there is a fault then, it lies in choosing Teflon over a more interesting texture, over something more natural, more beautiful, or hand-crafted.