“Men of Honor” features a powerful story with powerful characters and powerful performances by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Robert De Niro. The story was inspired by real life naval man Carl Brashear, the son of a Kentucky sharecropper who became the first black Navy diver in the 1950’s, but writer Scott Marshall has stressed that he’s taken great liberty with the facts.
Still, what you get is riveting drama.
Carl Brashear dreams of the Navy from the time he is a young boy and promises his father that he will not follow in his footsteps, sowing land that he can never hope to own, and instead, strive for higher achievements. As soon as he’s old enough, Carl enlists in the Navy and is immediately faced with blatant racism aboard the ship that he’s assigned to as a cook. He becomes impressed by the work and heroism of Master Chief Navy Diver Billy Sunday (De Niro) and from that point on, it becomes Carl’s dream to hold the same rank. Noticing Carl’s swimming talent, one captain aboard ship gives Carl the chance he needs to move up by sending him to the Navy’s diving school in Bayonne, New Jersey where he will train for dive and salvage missions.
He begins his tutelage under Sunday who has been transferred there earlier, following a health problem. Sunday, a hard-hearted racist, is determined to see Carl fail, an attitude that only makes Carl even more determined to succeed. At the school, Carl faces extreme prejudice from his peers with the exception of one man who befriends him. The rest of the time, Sunday and the boys, as well as the school’s crazy racist commanding officer (Hal Holbrook) are on his back making things near impossible for him. He faces formidable odds right up through the last project exercise that will see him pass, fail or even lose his life. At that point, not even Sunday can deny Carl’s extraordinary and superior qualifications and Carl moves closer to his dream.
Both the Sunday and the Brashear characters are extremely well developed and seeing them evolve in this dramatic context is wonderful to watch. The underwater action sequences keep you on the edge of your seat and there is no question that you will stand behind Carl every step of the way. He’s got the stuff that heroes are made of.
Also features Charlize Theron as Sunday’s rich, spoiled, much younger wife Gwen, who remains devoted to him despite his many ups and downs and Aunjanue Ellis as Jo, Brashear’s pre-med savior who helps him pass his exams and later becomes his wife. Ellis does a very nice job.
Lotta says “Men of Honor” is superb on every level. Absolutely solid, terrific performances from De Niro and Gooding, Jr. Rated R for language, racially motivated violence.