Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 16, 2020)
When I screened the extras to Remember the Titans, I heard that film’s screenwriter state that Hollywood only does one “inspirational” flick per year. I’m not sure why he felt that way, as we definitely find many more movies that could qualify as part of that genre.
Case in point: Men Of Honor, another “fighting the odds” picture that hit screens a mere six weeks after the debut of Titans.
The two films also shared a strong racial element, as both depicted past struggles faced by black characters. (Titans takes place in 1971, while Honor spans about three decades starting in the Forties.)
However, they offer different approaches to the themes. Titans provides a fairly flashy and slick production that focuses on large-scale integration. The struggle of a black man to gain acceptance plays a part but isn’t the main focus.
On the other hand, Honor pays little attention to relations between black and white. It prefers to concentrate on the attempts of one man to overcome the odds.
As depicted in the film, Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) grew up as the son of a poor sharecropper, but he aspired to do something more with his life. Encouraged by his father, Carl joins the Navy.
Buoyed by the sight of Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro) in action, he quickly attempts to become a diver. However, this being the Fifties, no other blacks have attained such lofty military status, and he faces a supremely difficult fight, one made even more difficult since Sunday - who no longer can dive due to a health condition - acts as his instructor.
Most of Honor focuses on Brashear’s experiences in camp, but it continues past that point. Brashear’s entire goal is to become a Master Chief, which apparently is the highest rank an enlisted man can hold in the Navy. The movie goes along with him as he works toward this title.
Overall, Honors seems like something of a mixed bag. As an inspirational tale, it workes fairly well, but a number of missteps make it less effective than it could be.
For one, the film starts in 1966 and then shows snippets of Brashear’s life in flashbacks. The major flaw with this technique is that it effectively kills any suspense we might experience during Brashear’s time in training camp.
Within the movie’s first five minutes we learn that he indeed becomes a diver. As such, although it’s interesting to see the obstacles he faced during that period, the outcome is never in doubt.
Admittedly, many films proceed toward a predictable goal, but it’s still strange to find one that openly tells us our hero will succeed before we even know he’s our hero.
That becomes storytelling flaw number one, and the second relates to the sterling depiction of Brashear himself. Although we occasionally see some signs that his myopic focus on his goal negatively affects those around him - as was the case with Jim Garrison in JFK - most of the problems get quickly swept away as we view a near-deification of the main character.
Frankly, as depicted in Honor, Brashear simply seems too perfect. The role lacks nuance and subtlety as he appears to be almost cartoonishly heroic. Clearly his life wasn’t as simple as shown here, but we see very little of the impact his personal decisions made.
As an actor, I generally like Gooding, but he seems to become sterile when placed against strong performers. His work in Instinct opposite Anthony Hopkins appeared flat and lifeless, and some of the same problems occur during Honor.
Granted, it’s hard to bring too much dimension to Brashear since he’s shown as such an ultraman, but I still think Gooding comes across as too cheerfully benign and without the appropriate intensity.
In regard to De Niro, he manages his troubled character’s many moments of intensity with the expected aplomb, but woof - that accent! De Niro has great difficulty adequately maintaining a Southern drawl, and at times his affectations seems to come straight from Hee Haw.
I also find the number of shots in which he lights his pipe to become incredibly excessive and distracting. There must be at least 20 of these images in the film, and it seems very odd. Couldn’t De Niro figure out anything else to do with his hands?
Honor suffers from the extremely simplistic nature of its moralizing. This is a film almost literally drawn as black and white.
Although Sunday earns an actual character arc, the others who oppose Brashear feel like nothing more than cartoon villains. I half expect to see some of them twirl their mustaches and cackle maniacally.
That tone culminates in one of the most over-the-top displays of visual intimidation I’ve seen lately. (Warning - possible spoiler in the next paragraph!)
At one point, Brashear must prove he can walk in the Navy’s newest dive suit, one that weighs about 100 pounds more than prior gear. As it’s wheeled into a room, we get only fleeting glimpses of the outfit, all of which make it look ominous and scary. When they finally reveal it, I thought we’d see Hannibal Lector strapped into the rig.
(By the way, I’d love to know why the Navy replaced their old suit with a new one that was about 33 percent heavier. Wouldn’t one think that progress would be marked with equipment that was less cumbersome?)
At the heart of Men Of Honor comes a fine, real-life story of a forceful man who indeed overcame enormous odds to achieve his goals. At times, the film shows this material effectively, and I’m occasionally able to get into the tale and become invested in it.
However, the film suffers from poor pacing and a tone that makes the piece excessively monochromatic. As a whole, Men Of Honor provides a moderately compelling experience, but it doesn’t turn into one that I find to be terribly successful.