November 16, 2000

Honorable Mention, at Best

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So there’s a new star-studded, action-packed, military-courtroom-drama out in time for Thanksgiving. As great as this combination can be (does A Few Good Men ring a bell?), Fox Films’ latest release, Men of Honor just doesn’t measure up. Despite the film’s “based on a true story” appeal and its cast of talented actors, Men of Honor falls short of the mark on several points.

Based on the life of Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the film is set primarily in Bayonne, New Jersey. Once the only training site for the U.S. Navy’s skilled team of divers, the Bayonne portrayed in the film was constructed in Washington state where much of the filming took place.

As the film begins, Brashear, the son of a Kentucky sharecropper, leaves home to join the newly integrated military. His sole dream is to live up to his father’s advice: “Never quit … Be the best.” But instead of receiving the training and education he expected, Brashear ends up in the galley with the other minority enlisted men, earning him the nickname “Cookie.” For the next two years, he wrote approximately 100 letters to his commanding officers in an attempt to gain admittance to the Navy’s illustrious Diving School.

As if gaining admission to this exclusive, advanced school wasn’t difficult enough, Brashear then comes face to face with the hard-drinking Master Chief Diver, Billy Sunday — a role seemingly written with Robert DeNiro in mind.

But Brashear excels in the diving program, overcoming countless obstacles alongside his fellow trainees. He even travels to New York City on weekends to study in the public library and overcome his seventh-grade education handicap. The audience watches as Brashear faces the bigotry and hatred of his peers with dignity and pride. Unfortunately, the commanding officer of the school, called “Mister Pappy” by the trainees, has other plans for Brashear. Portrayed by Hal Holbrook, Mister Pappy gives Sunday a direct order to make sure Brashear doesn’t graduate the diving program.

When the hard-nosed Sunday refuses his orders and allows Brashear to take the final test, he is court-marshalled and demoted. Brashear, on the other hand, goes on to marry a beautiful med-school student named Jo, played by Broadway veteran Aunjaune Ellis.

Of course, the film doesn’t end here. Brashear goes on to a brilliant career as a Navy Diver, always accepting the most dangerous duty in an attempt to gain rank and esteem. Unfortunately, after recovering a valuable nuclear warhead off the coast of Spain, Brashear suffers an injury that nearly cuts off his left leg. Yet, he endures. Brashear has his leg amputated and a prosthetic attached, hoping that he will one day resume his diving duties.

Meanwhile, Billy Sunday’s career looks like it’s going down the tubes. His wife, Gwen, played by Charlize Theron, threatens to leave him, prompting Sunday to turn his life around.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of his injury, Brashear begins months of therapy and training, including weight-lifting, jogging, and aerobics. Soon, Brashear finds himself in court fighting for his right to be reinstated as a Navy Diver. Luckily, Billy Sunday (fresh out of rehab) comes to his defense and fights alongside Brashear in court. Despite all odds, he eventually gains back his title and rank.

The resulting scene is a tense one, and includes a grueling demonstration of physical strength as Brashear is forced to take 12 “dry steps” in a diving suit weighing more than 200 pounds. Sunday serves as his motivation, always staying just out of Brashear’s reach, calling out orders and counting off each step.

As you might tell from this brief synopsis, Brashear’s story seems larger than life. Perhaps that’s why co-producer Bill Cosby took such an interest in the film. Granted, the cinamatography was spectacutlar (and the film’s depiction of the late 1950’s Harlem may be reason enough to buy a ticket), but it can’t seem to hold an audience member’s attention without contrived obstacles and teary scenes. It seems that every other scene is centered around DeNiro’s booming voice or Gooding Jr.’s ability to cry on camera.

For a reviewer with a veteran father and two brothers in the U.S. Marine Corps, it pains me to say that Men of Honor is only an average action film, a slightly interesting drama, and a sappy romance all in one.

In reality, the actual Brashear went on to achieve the rank of Master Diver and Master Chief, the Navy’s highest and most distinguished rank offered to an enlisted man.

So, if you’re interested in real-life drama, you may want to go to the library, see if you can find a biography on Brashear, and wait for Men of Honor to hit the video stores.

Archived article by Nate Brown