Directed by George Tillman, Jr. Starring, Robert De Niro, Cuba Gooding Jr, Charlize Theron, Michael Rapaport and Powers Boothe.
Hollywood's obsession with true-life stories sinks several hundred feet below sea-level in George Tillman Jr's 'Men of Honor', based on the life of the first African-American navy diver (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Unfortunately this turgid, ham-fisted bio-pic manages to do just about everything wrong, despite its heavyweight casting.
It's a well-intentioned movie, of course. Set in the 1950s and 60s, we follow Brashear, whom after much persistence, is finally granted admittance to the Navy diving school in Bayonne, New Jersey. The odds are stacked against him from the outset: the son of a Kentucky sharecropper with only a seventh grade education, he’s forced to endure a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, combating the forces of institutionalised racism and bureaucracy in pursuit of his goal. With the exception of a stuttering Michael Rapaport, his fellow recruits are all boorish thugs. Brashear suffers humiliation, betrayal and multiple setbacks at the hands of the renegade Master Chief diver Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro). His persistence is supposed to rouse us all to euphoria, of course, but it's difficult to empathise: Scott Marshall's script oozes cliché and sentimentality, the performances are embarrassing in their po-faced intensity (De Niro is particularly dreadful), and the direction is flat and uninspired.
In 128 minutes the film goes to great lengths to mould the circumstances of Brashear's life into some kind of coherent dramatic form, but the harder it tries, the more unconvincing the story becomes. Some of the sequences are so contrived that they border on the ridiculous; at one point Gooding and De Niro engage in a presumably heart-stopping contest to see who can hold their breath the longest. In another, Brashear narrowly avoids getting run over by a rogue Russian submarine, while the climactic courtroom sequence is probably the most unintentionally hilarious scene this reviewer has witnessed in a very long time.
Apparently in development since 1994, 'Men of Honor' is a rare breed: a film with hardly a redeeming feature whatsoever. What's more, the project’s endorsement by the US Department of Defence gives credence to the argument that it is little more than a propaganda movie: a politically-correct exercise in manipulation that seeks to dredge up all the worn-out clichés about how America is built upon solid values of loyalty, perseverance and, well, honour. Brashear's life may well be inspirational, but this film seems to make a mockery of all his hard work.