Potent acting enlivens this true story of a black Navy diver fighting 1950s racism President Clinton led the standing ovation at the White House for this true story of Carl Brashear, a sharecropper’s son from Kentucky who became the first African-American certified by the Navy as a master chief diver. With Cuba Gooding Jr. playing Brashear at full tilt and Robert De Niro getting in his licks as Billy Sunday, the bigot instructor who becomes Carl’s unlikely mentor, Men of Honor is built to push your inspirational buttons.
Still, true stories are problematic these days. Hollywood likes playing loose with dry, boring facts until they measure up as entertainment, hence the controversy that has dogged such alleged factual films as The Hurricane, Boys Don’t Cry and Erin Brockovich. Purists may bitch that the Navy lifer De Niro is playing — a boozing brawler who chews on a corncob pipe, takes a hot young wife, Gwen (Charlize Theron), and finds the courage to get past his racial prejudices — never existed. Debuting screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith invented Billy to create what he calls “a memorable opponent” for Carl in the film version of his life.
All righty, then. Given those caveats, Men of Honor, directed by George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) with a heavy foot on the lump-in-the-throat emotion pedal, passes muster as an old-style biopic with its heart in the right place. From the day in 1952 when Carl joins the trainees at the freshly integrated Navy Dive School in Bayonne, New Jersey, the story takes hold. Gooding finds the passion that drives this sailor third-class to improve his education with the help of Jo (Aunjanue Ellis), a medical student he later marries, face down racism in the ranks — Mister Pappy (Hal Holbrook), the commanding officer of the dive school, does not want the color barrier broken — and pass the final underwater exam that’s been rigged for him to fail.
Carl is one tough cookie. At a bar, he and Billy climb into diving suits for a breath-holding contest. The camera studies their faces as their helmets fill with water. Even when blood gushes through Billy’s nose, Carl holds the line. That fortitude serves him well later when part of one leg is ripped off in an accident, and Carl is forced to plead before a Navy tribunal to be restored to active duty. In court, Carl proves that even with one prosthetic leg, he can stand up and walk in crushingly heavy diving gear — the Navy standard during the 1950s and 1960s. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.