Rated R - Running Time: 2:08 - Released 11/10/00

At the opening of Men Of Honor, we learn that it is based on the true story of the life of Navy diver Carl Brashear. It is such an amazing story, it is altogether proper that it be made into a movie. But as we have learned from films like Patch Adams, Music From The Heart, and The Hurricane, a good story is not all that is needed for a good film. More importantly, writers are needed who can translate the momentous scope and heroism of a story like this to the screen in a way that is moving, yet not emotionally manipulative. This must be tricky, because like the films mentioned above, Men Of Honor pushes too hard on the sentimentality button and hamstrings its own effectiveness. Although Brashear's story is truly incredible in many ways, Scott Marshall Smith's screenplay, and therefore George Tillman Jr.'s film, is far too melodramatic for its own good, and its choppy, episodic structure gives the impression that too much is being crammed into too little time. Even the talents of award-winning actors like Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. cannot save this film from itself.

Carl Brashear (Gooding) enlisted in the U.S. Navy sometime during the early 1950s, and was assigned to the USS Hoist, a ship dedicated to undersea search and rescue operations. Being a black man, Carl's best assignment on the ship is as a cook. Also on board is the brash hothead Master Chief Billy Sunday (De Niro), whose dedication to his job occasionally leads him to the point of disobeying the orders of his superior, the much younger Cmdr. Hanks (David Conrad). Sunday's insubordination, and Brashear's desire to become a Navy diver, cause their paths to be inextricably intertwined, as Sunday is reassigned to a small diver training base in New Jersey, where Brashear signs on as the first black trainee. With the exception of one other sailor named Snowhill (Michael Rapaport), Brashear is ostracized by the entire company, including the senile commanding officer, a wizened old sailor called "Mr. Pappy" (Hal Holbrook), whose living quarters are atop a tall watchtower in the middle of the base.

During his training, Brashear excels at everything except his written exams, so he seeks the guidance of a young female law student named Jo (Aunjanue Ellis), who is also struggling against the racial barriers of the time. Eventually, against Mr. Pappy's orders, Sunday must pass Brashear, who begins his active service as a Navy diver, working toward his eventual goal of becoming a Master Chief like his unwilling mentor.

We follow Brashear's story through a confusing series of flashbacks and -forwards, with much of the film being concerned with the drippy relationship of Carl and Jo, but also with Sunday and his wife Gwen (Charlize Theron). The portions that deal with the actual diving are usually gripping and well-paced, but the above-ground scenes are uniformly overwrought. Sunday goes through so many states of mind (and consequently, so many changes in rank) that his existence as a real person is called into question. He seems almost more like an amalgamation of several people, too many to inhabit one body. Brashear, meanwhile, is portrayed as a nearly faultless individual. He is a hero, but a hero without faults is a comic book character. Moreover, the final court scene with the too-evil-to-be-real Hanks presiding, is completely over the top, and its resolution, intended to provoke cheers, will more likely result in groans and a sickish feeling in the stomach.

While director Tillman gained moderate success with his first major release, 1997's Soul Food, he could still be called a novice, and this is Smith's first screenplay. The lack of experience between the two main creative forces results in an unfortunately sappy telling of a truly amazing story.***

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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