Well, well, it's another uplifting underdog biopic. Haven't seen one of those in, oh, two days or so. Anyway, I somehow managed to miss Men of Honor during its theatrical run and original DVD release, as well as the roughly eight billion times it has been shown on FX. I had a pretty good idea exactly how the movie would unfold, so I saw no real reason to sit through it. Having finally seen it, I can say that while I was pretty much dead on the money with my assumptions regarding its content, it's still a pretty entertaining throwback to the type of true-to-life stories the Hollywood of yore used to crank out on a regular basis.
Raised on a sharecropper farm by a loving mother and a strong-willed father who wants a better life for his son, Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) has an uncanny gift for swimming and diving. Carl, who dropped out of school after completing the seventh grade, joins the Navy in the late 1940s. He yearns to be a Navy Master Diver, but no black man has ever been admitted to the training program. After much cajoling, his commanding officer relents and recommends Carl be allowed in. Carl eventually finds himself in New Jersey, training under Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), a former Master Diver who was given an instructing position after a dangerous rescue attempt cut short his diving career. Carl's fellow trainees resent having a black man in the program, as does Sunday, who often saw his father losing farming jobs to sharecroppers. Undaunted, Brashear completes the program, but is later severely injured in a shipboard accident. Once again facing adversity, Brashear fights to return to active duty. This time he will receive help from a very unlikely source: Billy Sunday, who is looking to redeem himself after being arrested for going AWOL.
Anyone looking for a lot of truth in Men of Honor will be sorely disappointed. Aside from the fact that Carl Brashear (who died in 2006) actually did become the Navy's first African-American Master Diver, not much here adheres to the facts. On the other hand, anyone looking for a dose of old-fashioned, feel-good filmmaking will find a lot to love. I tend to favor the former, but I don't have a problem with the latter (at least when it's done right), so my reaction to the movie was somewhat mixed.
Brashear's story is compelling enough, but the filmmakers decided to beef things up by throwing in several standard biopic elements. Brashear was forced to overcome institutionalized racism in his quest, but much of what's presented here is simply a black man trying to prove himself in the midst of a bunch of rubes. There's no reason to make Sunday (who is a completely fabricated character) a redneck whose daddy couldn't get work. The character of Pappy, the aging officer who oversees Sunday's training camp, is also mishandled. Pappy, who is portrayed by the always reliable Hal Holbrook, is presented a crazy old man who sits in his watchtower all day, playing with his dog and giving the stink eye to the recruits. He comes across as just another mean old white coot, not a man who resents the intrusion into his world by a black man. I'm sure Brashear did come up against some good ol' boys during his tenure in the Navy, but his fight was primarily against a system, one which had created, to a certain degree, an insular world for a handful of men who never expected things to change. Unfortunately, we don't really get a sense of that here. Instead, the movie gives us the now familiar scene in which an outcast refuses to give up at a critical juncture, which immediately changes him in the eyes of everyone around him. Change doesn't come about so easily, and presenting it this way does something of a disservice to Brashear's accomplishments. A couple of other moments of artistic license bothered me. The scene in which Carl's air hose is snagged by the conning tower of a Russian sub doesn't work; it plays more like something you'd find in a cheesy action flick. (Director George Tillman, Jr., who also directed Soul Food, demanded the scene be included in order to give the audience a big, thrilling moment. He should've known better.) I also didn't like the way Sunday magically seemed to appear whenever and wherever Brashear needed him. Once again, this move undermines Brashear's role in his own story.
Scott Marshall Smith's script completely fails when it comes to conveying the passage of time. The courtship between Brashear and the young woman who will eventually become his wife comes to its logical conclusion in less time than it takes to get a haircut. One minute they're introducing themselves and he's asking her to tutor him in reading, and next thing you know he's proposing. The training program, which we're told lasts the better part of a year, seems to only run about two weeks. After Carl has completed his training, the movie jumps forward ten years or so. Exactly what happened during this time is left to the viewer's imagination. And his time spent in rehabilitation, which actually ate up the better part of two years, is over in the blink of an eye. (Watch closely--Carl's son doesn't age a day from the time his father is injured to the time he's finally reinstated in the Navy.) I understand the need to compress events for the sake of storytelling, but the way these events are presented here rankled me just a little.
The movie's greatest assets are the performances of the leads. Gooding, who eschew his patented exuberant acting style for a more quiet approach, is wonderful as Brashear. In fact, this is arguably the best performance he's ever given. De Niro is commanding, even if he still can't quite get a grip on his Southern accent (it appears to be the same one he attempted in Cape Fear). Aunjanue Ellis is very good as Jo, Brashear's wife, as is Charlize Theron, who plays Sunday's wife. (Unfortunately for them, their roles are terribly underwritten, and Theron's is completely unnecessary to the story.)
My only complaint regarding the 2.35:1 transfer (encoded with MPEG2 at a rate of 18 Mbps on a single layer disc) is a bit of flatness here and there. The shots exhibiting this flaw aren't numerous, but they occur enough to knock the rating down a notch. Other than that, the transfer is perfectly fine. Colors and black levels are solid, and the amount of detail in many scenes is impressive (most notably Gooding's underwater test; the shape, color, and texture of every tiny rock is discernible as he moves across the bottom).
As can be expected, Fox has included a lossless DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio track. Although the track is driven primarily by dialogue, the surrounds are often used for ambient effects, and the entire soundstage in engaged during a few scenes (the helicopter crash, the encounter with the Russian sub). Dialogue is always clear, bass is deep and tight, and Mark Isham's score sounds very good. Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also included; English and Spanish subtitles are available.
The commentary by director George Tillman, Jr., actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., producer Robert Teitel and writer Scott Marshall Smith is a lively, jovial track. It's brimming with production anecdotes, behind-the-scenes information, and discussions regarding how the events in the film differ from the true story of Brashear's life. Tillman and Gooding, who sound like a couple of reminiscing high school friends, dominate the track.
Fox has also included a Trivia Track, which are quickly becoming a standard feature of their Blu-ray releases. This deals more with the real-world aspects of the story (history of diving, equipment, etc.) than it does with behind-the-scenes info. Much of it is interesting, but the text itself is rather small and indistinct, making it a bit difficult to read at times.
You also get the movie's theatrical trailer, as well as several previews for other Fox releases. Unfortunately, the deleted scenes, featurettes, and other extras found on the standard definition release have not been ported over.
Men of Honor isn't as rousing as it could have been, and it squanders its potential for greatness by succumbing to Hollywood conventions on too many occasions, but it's nevertheless a fairly solid piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment. It's not quite good enough to earn a permanent place in your collection, but it is worth a rental.