Like Remember the Titans, Twentieth Century Fox's contribution against racism, Men of Honor, relies heavily on a standard formula that we've seen countless times in “feel good” movies—the impossible dream, the struggles, and eventual success. Both movies bank on its stars—Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding, Jr. this time around. But Men of Honor delivers the goods more satisfactorily because its script develops the characters well enough to give De Niro and Gooding material to showcase their acting talents.
Based on a true story, Carl Brashear (Gooding, Jr.) is a hard working black man who dropped out of school in junior high to help his father with sharecropping in Kentucky. Brashear's father wants him to succeed, and emotionally sends him off to the Navy just after the end of World War II with a homemade radio with the initials A.S.N.F. carved on it. (one of the details that pays off later in the film)
These are the days before President Truman orders integrated troops in the military, so the only Naval careers open to African Americans are cooks or officer valets. Brashear has long been fascinated with diving, and gets to observe Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro) in action.
We know from the opening scene that Sunday and Brashear will form an eventual bond, as much of the story is told via a long flashback. When orders the desegregation of the military in 1948, Brashear gets his shot at diving school in Bayonne, New Jersey through sheer persistence. Of course Sunday is the redneck drill instructor, who invokes much of the spirit of other trainers we've seen in films like An Officer and a Gentleman.
To Sunday's credit, he can get past his prejudices and recognize the skills and sheer determination of this other maverick who is bucking the military system. Truman may have ordered integration, but he can't change the mind of the nutty commanding officer (Hal Holbrook) who is determined to make sure that no “colored diver” graduates from his school while he's there, nor can he convince Brashear's fellow trainees to share the barracks with him.
An expected heroic incident grants Brashear respect from his peers and Sunday, and Brashear must pass a rigged final exam in freezing dark waters. Of course, the outcome is a given, but Tillman retains the tension so that we're not entirely sure how everything will come out.
The only surprise comes from the story structure. Beginning as a flashback after an opening scene with a handcuffed De Niro watching a news clip of Brashear attempting to recover a nuclear weapon, the bookend technique emerges after Brashear passes diving school. Just when the movie appears to end formulaically, suddenly another story begins.
Part II works less successfully than the first. Racism no longer dominates the scene, but the new challenge becomes Brashear's battle to become a Master Chief despite a horrendous accident. Though difficult, these two stories need to be spliced together more smoothly than essentially jump cutting to the second narrative.
Besides that, the courtroom scene conjures up some laughable and manipulative moments, although De Niro’s desire to “piss off” the military brass is enjoyable. A panel of five review Brashear’s case with the one younger man making his case for the New Navy, while the four older veterans inexplicably sit silently and only giving “knowing” looks to each other until the hokie climax inevitably arrives.
Other lapses in the script lie in the ways that the significant women are handled. Charlize Theron surprisingly plays a brunette version as De Niro's wife, and performs her part well. There’s just not a lot for her to do, and her role does nothing to advance the plot, other than demonstrate that Sunday continues being unconventional in all aspects of his life. Similarly, Aunjanue Ellis has a few good moments as Jo (Brashear's reading tutor and subsequent wife), but her character remains underdeveloped, her objections to Carl's continuation of his diving career only serve as at trite plot device.
Fortunately, De Niro and Gooding, Jr. interplay as well as possible with a script that could have been a lifeless collection of cliched stereotypes without them. Though the racism in the late 1940s is very real, the blatant examples here often seem over the top. It is hard to believe that the entire bunkhouse would clear out, save the lone stuttering Michael Rappaport character, who explains his racial tolerance by declaring, "I'm from Wisconsin." It is also hard to believe that the military brass would be so hard pressed to ignore Brashear as the film portrays.
De Niro gets the more rounded character of the two, as his rough exterior masks the caring side that recognizes Gooding’s character as his spiritual "son." The anger that comes from his alcoholism and from the realization that he can’t dive again erupts believably, and the unspoken respect that he has for Brashear comes through clearly. Gooding, Jr. basically plays the Jackie Robinson style character that he hears about on his radio. He is the "good" Negro, who realizes that he will be treated unjustly, but stoically determines that he will be the best and win at all costs. Gooding, Jr. keeps his natural energy under control to carry out the role successfully.
Not a great movie, the narrative relies on standard clichés, but it's moderately enjoyable. Much of this comes from realizing that the real Carl Brashear actually endured these hardships to become the first African-American Master Diver. The two lead actors make the movie tolerable for film buffs, and the inspirational message plays well to mainstream audiences. If in the mood for a didactic “feel good” movie about racism, Men of Honor is a far more intelligent choice for Netflix queing than the insipid Remember the Titans.