"Men of Honor" is an old-fashioned title for an old-fashioned movie that tells a true-blue tale - full of heroism, adversity, and human interest - through formulas Hollywood perfected decades ago. It holds few surprises, but it's just the ticket if you're in the mood for two hours of proudly traditional entertainment.
Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Navy diver Carl Brashear, whose real-life story inspired the film. He's a young African-American of the 1940s who refuses to forget the hard life led by his father - a black sharecropper in the segregated South - and decides a military career is the best route to something better. Combining his talent for swimming with his impressive store of tenacity, he sets his sights on becoming a master diver, trained to plunge into the sea on rescue and salvage missions.
This might not be an exceptional ambition today, but Brashear faces the realities of a different era. For one thing, diving is an arduous occupation in a cumbersome "hard hat" rig that bears little resemblance to lightweight scuba gear.
More important, the Navy has just been racially integrated for the first time, and plenty of Brashear's fellow sailors are infuriated at living and working with a black man. Even his superiors are against his best interests - including his training officer, a rough-hewn redneck named Billy Sunday, who'd be perfectly content to see what he perceives as an uppity Negro fail at everything he's set out to accomplish. But the young recruit soon shows that nothing will keep him down, and all but his worst enemies are eventually impressed by his unstoppable spirit.
George Tillman Jr. has directed this stirring yarn in a suitably stirring manner, alternating with clockwork regularity between scenes of adversity and unfairness (our hero gets harassed by bigots, challenged by his job, disabled by an accident) and scenes of spunky human triumph (our hero overcomes, faces down, or rises above these trials). There's not a shred of originality in sight, but what the movie lacks in novelty it makes up for in sincerity, most notably in the later scenes, involving a tragic accident and a courageous decision that proves Brashear's mettle beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Gooding brings Brashear alive with heartfelt acting, and Robert De Niro is even better as Billy Sunday, the movie's most complex character. Charlize Theron makes the most of her tiny role as Sunday's wife, and Michael Rapaport and Hal Holbrook have persuasive moments as very different Navy men. Anthony B. Richmond did the slick cinematography and Mark Isham composed the music, which underscores every emotion with the subtlety of Sunday on a particularly bull-headed rant.
Rated PG-13; contains scenes of drinking, fighting.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society