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Growing up as the son of a dirt-poor farmer in the 1940s, Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr) knows what he wants to do when he grows up: join the US Navy. At that time, most black men in the Navy work as cooks, valets or similar menial jobs, but Brashear has bigger plans: he wants to become the first black US Navy diver. After writing more than one hundred letters requesting admittance, Brashear is finally allowed into the diving school, but there he faces his greatest challenge yet - dealing with the racism of his classmates and his instructor, Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro). Even after he graduates, Brashear's struggles are far from over. But when a decade later he suffers a crippling accident that threatens to end his career, it's Sunday, of all people, who comes to his rescue.

"No emotional button is left unpressed in this overlong item which has the star power to keep it afloat... just. From the opening images of swelling seas accompanied by swelling music we know we're in store for a tale of heroism with full Hollywood honours. It's 1966 when a handcuffed Billy Sunday (De Niro) manages to stick one on the chin of the naval cops who've arrested him. The reason: one of them speaks unkindly of black diver Carl Brashear, whose latest exploits are being broadcast live on TV. The question: why would a cussin' southern-fried man like Sunday stick up for a black man? From there it's a flashback to the 40s and the story of dirt-poor Brashear following his dream of becoming a diver for Uncle Sam at a time when African-American servicemen couldn't realistically entertain career prospects beyond the mess hall or kitchen. Brashear's story is a compelling and inspirational one and there are moments which have strong emotional pull. Scenes in which Brashear suffers the silent treatment of his white fellow trainees, the torments of the hostile Sunday and the conspiratorial efforts of Navy brass to retire him in the wake of a severe accident all register powerfully but director George Tillman Jr doesn't want to quit while he's ahead. Dramatic overkill dilutes the effectiveness of the piece because we're told in too large writing how to react. The unsubtle use of Mark Isham's score doesn't help and the film cries out to have at least 20 of its 129 minutes deleted. There are positive notes: Gooding's sincerity makes Brashear a steely hero we care for and De Niro turns in a regulation excellent performance as his emotionally twisted instructor. The love story of Brashear and Jo (Aunjuane Ellis) has backbone to it and Charlize Theron chimes in with a ripe turn as De Niro's boozy babe wife Gwen. As a tale of courage and determination overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds Men Of Honour is about par for the course."
Richard Kuipers

"Men Of Honor is one of those 'inspirational true stories' that tells you if you work hard and never say die and make every sacrifice and follow your dream, you too could become (in this case) the first black diver in the US Navy! It's a version of the 'log cabin to White House' idea - as if prejudice and inequality only existed so that people could demonstrate character by struggling to overcome them. It does sound like Carl Brashear's real-life career was remarkable, but the script dilutes its interest by focusing on Brashear's relationship with an invented character, the oddly-named Billy Sunday (he sounds like someone from a Faulkner novel). Intentionally or not, this relationship is depicted in a way that finally sentimentalises racism: although Sunday spends much of the movie humiliating and tormenting Carl in every way he can, the two are still finally able to become friends, because deep down - guess what? - each respects the other's guts and determination. The conclusion is that Billy Sunday may be one mean son of a bitch, but you have to respect him, because he's one mean son of a bitch. You can sense De Niro's glee in embodying the perverse side of this character, a pigheaded sadist who lives 'to piss people off' yet who (perhaps because of this) remains some kind of hero. It's briefly indicated that such 'heroism' can also be seen as self-serving macho stubbornness, but the point is raised only to be buried again. As Brashear and Sunday's respective long-suffering wives, Aunjanue Ellis and Charlize Theron predictably don't have much to do, but they're both very appealing presences: Theron looks particularly spectacular with her dyed black hair and bright red '50s lipstick. The oddity of the lumbering, middle-aged Sunday having acquired this gorgeous young wife is touched on but hardly explored. In fact, the more I think of it, the less idea I have what Charlize Theron is doing in this movie; not that I'm complaining."
Jake Wilson

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CAST: Robert De Niro, Cuba Gooding Jr, Charlize Theron, Aunjanue Ellis

DIRECTOR: George Tillman Jr

PRODUCER: Bill Badalato, Robert Teitel

SCRIPT: Scott Marshall Smith

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Anthony B. Richmond

EDITOR: John Carter, Dirk Westervelt

MUSIC: Mark Isham


RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes




VIDEO RELEASE: August 8, 2001

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