Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as Carl Brashear, a black man who was born to a hardworking family of Kentucky sharecroppers in 1931. Correctly choosing the military as the surest way to break from the tenacious cycle of poverty, long hours of menial labor and lack of education, Carl joins the U.S. Navy in 1948, just as President Truman orders the armed forces to desegregate. Like most black sailors in those days, Carl is immediately consigned to working in the galley, but after spotting the heroic behavior of Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), Carl grows determined to become a navy salvage diver -- a specialty considered completely off limits to minorities.
Sunday may be an unbelievably courageous diver, but he's also a foul, vindictive racist, as Brashear discovers two years later. Our hero's endless series of applications to diving school has finally broken down the resistance of a still-discriminatory navy, and he is transferred to a diving school in Bayonne, New Jersey, where Sunday is now head instructor. Sunday's attitudes are in no way distinctive; the officer in charge of the facility, senile "Mister Pappy" (Hal Holbrook), is even more racist, and the enlisted men are no better, save one slightly dim white boy (Michael Rapaport).
Like many biopics, Men of Honor runs into structural problems while presenting the highlights of Brashear's life. It's really two stories, vaguely bound together by a common theme and by the fictional composite character of Sunday. The first hour and a quarter presents the hero's insanely arduous struggle to become a navy diver; the final 45 minutes are set almost twenty years later, when Brashear is badly injured during a critical rescue mission. With his left leg so badly mangled that he can't dive anymore, Brashear makes a decision that seems almost insane (not to mention gruesome): He requests that his leg be amputated so that he can be fitted with a prosthetic and return to work. Of course, even then he must fight the navy bureaucrats who, despite this mad sacrifice, still don't want to let him back in the water.
While both of the stories have to do with Noble Perseverance Against Stacked Odds, they're two altogether different narratives. The first pits Brashear against racism, the second against a self-interested bureaucracy. In the first, Sunday is presented as the embodiment of Brashear's enemies; in the second, he becomes Brashear's ally in a totally dissimilar fight. Now the film has to suddenly establish a new enemy, a caricature named Captain Hanks (David Conrad) -- a slick, college-boy type with no practical experience and no regard for service tradition. He's supposed to represent some vaguely terrible "new navy."
What "new navy"? Perhaps such a shift in naval administration really occurred in the '50s and '60s, with the hardened, tobacky-chawin' World War II vets replaced by snotty desk jockeys, but Men of Honor stops just short of having Hanks twiddle a handlebar mustache. (When the term "code of honor" is mentioned, Hanks first seems not to have heard of it, then snorts to show contempt for such a naive notion.) And the two sections are arguably contradictory. Wouldn't the "new navy" bureaucrats have been precisely the people who ended such "honorable" old traditions as, say, the virulent racism detailed in the first half? The film tries to have it both ways, and director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) is a skilled enough filmmaker to finesse us past most of this; it's only the next day that you begin thinking, "Hold on a minute..."
The second flaw that makes Men of Honor less effective than it might have been is that, despite Gooding's best efforts, the central character is two-dimensional (and I'm not so sure about that second dimension). Brashear has one trait -- determination -- and no inner conflict. He's a virtual perseverance machine. Yes, he has obstacles to overcome, but they're all external; he barely falters for a second. It's the secondary character, Sunday, who has an interesting inner life and who undergoes some kind of change.
De Niro, sporting a haircut that, unfortunately, calls to mind his recent turn as Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, is a great enough actor to dominate any scene in any film he chooses to be in. Here he makes us utterly loathe Sunday in the beginning, so much so that presenting his transformation into Mr. Nice Guy is a formidable task. (An introductory scene -- which feels like a last-minute add-on -- shows the nice post-1960 Sunday, to tip us off not to hate the guy too much.) Tillman's answer is simply to avoid the task altogether: Much of this massive personality change takes place off-camera, during the gap between the stories.
There is a suggestion that the change has something to do with Sunday conquering his alcoholism, or his reconciliation with his understandably fed-up wife (Charlize Theron, third-billed for what is little more than a cameo), but the opening scene makes it clear that, in fact, the change predates those events. We are left to conclude that, although Sunday is utterly unmoved by Brashear's first three or four exhibitions of selfless heroism, something about the fourth or fifth one suddenly breaks down his lifelong attitude of racist contempt. (The scenes of heroism are brilliantly handled, filled with excruciating, nail-biting tension.)
There's no question that Brashear's story, even as filtered through the necessary distortions of filmmaking, is extraordinary and inspiring. Nor should Tillman be denied credit for constructing a spirit-rousing tale. What with Gooding's nobility, Mark Isham's on-the-nose score (which resembles the main theme from Jurassic Park) and De Niro's transformation, you'd have to be quite the hard-hearted cynic to totally resist the film's inspirational sledgehammer.