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IN SHORT: Terrible. [Rated R for language. 130 minutes]
So, what are we to make of a film that puts the words "Based on a true story" on the screen before you see anything else; one of whose main characters is a complete fiction and whose initial scene is rife with historical error? If Men of Honor didn't try so hard to make the connection to real events, it would have been a fine "man overcoming racism" story. But it does try to make you think you're seeing real life and we won't salute deceit.
Sometimes, if the final scene of a movie is a real corker, you might walk out of a theater thinking "that was great". Such is the case a stinker called Men of Honor which, had most of the movie been as emotionally gripping as 1) the first effects scene and 2) the finale, it would have been a monster. In recreating the life story Carl Brashear, the first African-American to survive the racial barriers of the US Navy to become the first Black Navy Diver -- and attain the highest rank an enlisted man can get despite a crippling injury -- Men of Honor dishonors his achievement and struggle. Most of the movie plays out as if it was scripted by committee, which it wasn't, and badly scripted to boot.
We begin with naval petty officer Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), sitting in an airport watching television coverage of the deep sea salvage of a nuclear device somewhere in the Mediterranean. The TV is one of those little black and white things, bolted to the plastic pre-formed chairs, that eat quarters like popcorn. Sunday is shackled to two shore patrolmen, one of whom still gets a thrashing after making a racist remark about one of the salvage divers, one of Sunday's trainees when he held the higher rank of Master Diver. Thus, we know that the flat out mean and racist Master Diver we're about to meet, as Men of Honor flashes back from April 1966 to 1949 and then to the 1950s, will find enlightenment and become a good guy.
Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is seen early, passing up his chance at higher education to help dad save the farm -- it's a sharecropping family and there are others who would do the work cheaper to get a roof over their heads. Carl's ticket out of lifelong poverty is the US Navy which, he believes, offers him the chance to become the diver that he's dreamed of. What he discovers in the Navy is a life restricted to kitchen duty and valet service for the upper officers.
Line up the dominos: for every racist incident (economic or otherwise) Brashear faces, have him overcome it with a healthy dose of pride and determination. Have him befriend a fellow enlisted man and stomp that dude good for it. Show that he's more capable than his fellow trainees (herewith the first rescue/effects sequence mentioned up top) and then "put him in his place". Compile a character to act as a representative of the Navy racism Brashear faced, in this case Billy Sunday, and make Sunday's commanding officer (Hal Holbrook) just as racist, and bordering on senile, to boot. Since De Niro is a big star give him a non-geographic reason for his racism -- maybe something in common with the trainee, 'cuz being Southern's been done to death. Add a gorgeous wife (Charlize Theron) and a problem with the bottle and voila, "character"! We call it providing a ready made excuse for reprehensible conduct and we'll let the film historians compile a list of how many times the flip side of the same chord shtick has been used before. It's always new to someone, but not us. Then toss in a romantic subplot and let the pride get in the way of that. Set the two "enemies" against a bigger Enemy, "The System" and it's a big happy dramatic ending for all.
The one small problem with this scenario has nothing to do with the fact that Billy Sunday is a composite character created to lend focus to the generally racist atmosphere in the US Navy of the time. No, it's a simple lack of attention to detail from the get go. There were no pay-per-use television sets bolted to chairs of any kind in any airport in 1966. We can't find any record of their existence prior to the early 1980s. We're willing to give a slide to what appears to be "live" teevee coverage (the Intelsat I "Early Bird" satellite went up in 1965) though that CNN style johnny on the spot coverage was technically impossible in April 1966.
This is more than nitpicking. If you know that what you're seeing in a "real life" recreation is historically impossible, why should you believe anything else you see? In trying to take the real story "up a level," which is what writer Scott Marshall Smith says he tried to do, that story is undermined. The exact quote reads: "Everyone wanted the script to resonate as much as possible, so as a dramatist I sometimes took it up a level." Thus the crack about writing by committee. See? We knows it when we hears it . . . and what we hear is a biography where a real life event or two is used, and everything else is made up whole hog.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Men of Honor, he would have paid...
Salvage diving, which is what Brashear does, is one of the most difficult and dangerous occupations in the Navy. If nothing else, Men of Honor gets that point across. With a few exceptions, Men of Honor offers up nothing more than a nagging feeling that we've seen the situations and heard the dialog elsewhere. [we have, but that would mean making useless comparisons; not a policy of this board. Ask on the message boards and I'll tell you . . .]
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