Carl Brashear is a role model for people of any race. The son of a Kentucky sharecropper, he overcame every obstacle and triumphed with honor through sheer determination. Director George Tillman Jr. brings the story of the Navy’s first black master diver to film, and despite its frequent Hollywood flourishes, the story remains very inspiring. Today’s film heroes are so often the cartoonish, effects-enhanced variety that it’s refreshing to see a true American hero celebrated on-screen.
In a subdued and moving performance, Cuba Gooding Jr. honors the man who made military history, boldly capturing the overarching determination that let nothing stand in his character’s way. Gooding has said he didn’t need to be too theatrical to present Carl’s story, because the real thing was compelling enough.
When Carl Brashear left home in the 1950s to join the newly integrated U.S. Navy and find a better life, his father gave him a homemade radio and a mandate: “Don’t end up like me. Get in there and fight. Don’t take promises.” His devoted parents gave him the courage to pursue his dreams, but Carl quickly learned that the Navy wanted no part of those dreams.
The Service may have been integrated, but black recruits were largely assigned to kitchen patrol or as valets for officers. Even the waters of the South Pacific turn out to be segregated. When white sailors jump in for a swim, blacks can only watch from the deck. Carl, however, refuses to let a racist society leave him behind. He jumps in with the rest, which lands him in the brig but also gains him the notice of his superiors. Impressed with his swimming, they assign him to the Search and Rescue unit. But his dream is to become a master diver, the highest rank for an enlisted man. He writes more than a hundred letters seeking admission to the Navy’s Dive School Program, which finally pays off.
His euphoria is quickly tempered, however, by the racist Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert DeNiro), a fictitious composite character whose outrageous behavior is as legendary as his diving prowess. Sunday’s diving days ended when embolisms became lodged in his lungs—a bitter defeat. He now teaches other divers, and has no intention of letting the young black recruit succeed.
DeNiro is a master actor, who generously hands the spotlight to Gooding. His character could have been a caricature—a nasty, alcoholic, redneck racist—but DeNiro gives him dimension and complexity, often with little more than the simplest of gestures and expressions. DeNiro lets us see his character for what he is: a broken, unhappy man who knows that outside of diving he is nothing.
A heated scene between the two men brings to the surface all their deep-seated insecurities. “You’re the same hateful little man you started out as,” Carl explodes. “Without diving you’re nothing!” The look on DeNiro’s face bares the damaged soul of his character. The officer knows Carl is right. When Sunday picks up the picture of Carl’s father and asks, “What did he say to you to make you try so hard?” it is a chastened question from a man who can’t come to terms with the pain and demons of his own past. He’s jealous of Carl, whose father instilled such confidence in him.
The other divers are no more welcoming to Carl. Save one stuttering recruit (Michael Rapaport), they refuse to share a barracks with him, and pin a threatening note on his mattress: “We’re gonna drown you, nigger.” But Carl won’t be deterred. He uses his shore leave to study at a local library. He takes on any challenge to prove himself. When asked why he wants to be a diver so badly, his answer is telling: “Because they said I couldn’t have it.” The filmmaker doesn’t shy away from pointing out that this dogged determination is indeed heroic, though at times it borders on obsession.
Charlize Theron, always a joy to watch, plays Billy Sunday’s unhappy young wife, whose response to her husband’s downward spiral is to drink herself into embarrassing oblivion. Theron doesn’t play the character as a drunk trophy wife, however, but as a resilient woman of heart and intelligence who has the maturity to truly care for her flawed husband.
Newcomer Aunjanue Ellis plays Carl’s wife, Jo, another woman of intelligence and resilience who loves her husband but worries about the dangerous missions he undertakes. Though not always easy, theirs is a strong union, as solid and loving as the family from which Carl came. Hal Holbrook deserves mention for his juicy cameo as the loony and feared captain whose eccentricity the Navy humors.
Men of Honor offers an insightful look into an important chapter of America’s past. It’s so refreshing to see a film about true heroism that its overblown “Rocky-esque” moments can be excused. If Men of Honor weren’t based on a real military hero, it would come across as formulaic. But Carl Brashear was a real-life hero who persevered through every obstacle, whether it was a belligerent superior determined to make him fail, or the blows of fate.
Men of Honor (PG-13) HHH Directed by George Tillman Jr. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Robert DeNiro and Charlize Theron.