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Men of Honor

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Men of Honor

Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Robert De Niro
Director: George Tillman
Rated: R
RunTime: 128 Minutes
Release Date: November 2000
Genre: Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

I missed the critics' screening of "Men of Honor" and caught up with the picture not in a sophisticated Manhattan neighborhood but in a Brooklyn community filled with people who are politically and social conservative. As their voting record over the past few decades indicates, they are strongly family-minded, traditional, and at the Sunday screening I attended mostly over 55 years of age. The seats were filled. Why did "Men of Honor" attract the largest audience of the multiplex theater rather than "Charlie's Angels" or "Little Nicky" or "The 6th Day"? Because the other three films are targeted to the young? That's partly the reason. But I'd suggest another purely on speculation. These are people who are dismayed by the plethora of violent and sexually explicit movies but even more, they are opposed to the rampant cynicism projected on today's screens. They look forward to movies that might urge them--were they just a little less inhibited--to stand up at the end and recite the pledge of allegiance or even sing the national anthem. "The Contender" would be a similar sort were the hero not a pro- choice, atheist vegetarian who likes sex, because absent those traits, who could resist the rousing call of President Jackson Evans to a joint session of Congress to accept his nomination of Laine Hanson to the post of vice president?

"Men of Honor" shares the all-American thrills of "The Contender" while celebrating an African-American man whose political views are unknown but whose determination to contribute mightily to his country is liberty-bell clear. His life could have been the subject of a dull, talking-heads biopic but director George Tillman Jr. does a bracing job of bringing this true American hero to life with all the force that a stirring sound track (by Mark Isham) and lines-are-drawn acting could bring. If the music obtrusively punctuates what is apparent in the struggle of Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) to overcome racial prejudice in the post World War II Navy (as scripted by Scott Marshall Smith), Tillman means well. If the obligatory courtroom finale is as schematic and schmaltzy as the conclusion of Rod Lurie "The Contender," all the better to appeal to a crowd less influenced by modern critical standards to condemn the mawkish. "Men of Honor" may be square, but in recent years we've had all the hip we need in the movie theaters.

Filmed by Anthony B. Richmond with some tense, authentic underwater photography, "Men of Honor" focuses on the struggle between Carl Brashear, who became the Navy's first African-American diver, and a crew of people headed by Master Chief Diver Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro). Pushed by his sharecropper father to be all he can be, Brashear enters the all-white Naval diving program. Despite his seventh- grade education, he struggles through the initial written tests, fails one, and passes the second with a reasonable grade. The real test comes for Brashear when he must deal with the refusal of the entire crew save the stuttering Snowhill (Michael Rapaport) to bunk with him. (All but Snowhill walk where did they get to bunk anyway?) While Sunday is determined to flunk the man, pushed to do so by his racist commanding officer Mr. Pappy (Hal Holbrook), as he puffs away on his corncob pipe--a gift from General MacArthur--he slowly grows to appreciate Brashear's enormous motivation. This impetus to become a diver and even rise to the top of his profession is made most dramatic by what Brashear does to himself in the hospital while recovering from an accident.

Since Carl Brashear was a real, live person who--as the audience knew beforehand actually fought and won the good fight depicted here-- we in the audience knew from the start that this was a man that Billy Sunday could not shut down. Despite this, Tillman's characterizations bring out the humor as well as the poignancy, making the journey to victory the cause for celebration.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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