“Men of Honor” is a biopic about the first African-American US Navy Diver. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Carl Brashear. Brashear is a hero of the modern Navy so the Navy cooperated in the production. The script sat for years before Fox took it on and George Tillman, Jr. directed. Fox questioned the movie’s appeal and limited the budget to $32 million (from a requested $50 million). The movie was made after Gooding and Robert De Niro agreed to accept only one-third of their usual salaries. The film made $48 million.
Brashear grew up in the rural South. He is the son of a sharecropper. He ain’t that keen on book learning and schooling, but the dude sure can swim. In 1948, he leaves home to follow his dream by joining the Navy. This being the Navy, he is put to work in the galley as a cook. Truman may have integrated the Armed Forces, but that did not mean the Navy had to stop being racist. His life changes when he witnesses a diver rescue a man from a crashed chopper. This inspires Brashear to apply for the Diving and Salvage School where guess who is the instructor? The very same heroic diver who had injured his health in the rescue and is now a bitter ex-diver. Master Chief Petty Officer Sunday (De Niro) is ordered by the bigoted (and mentally unstable) commanding officer to make sure Brashear washes out. Not that Sunday needs much prodding. Not only that, but his training mates are uniformly hostile to having a black man in their class. In a bold move, the script pushes one of the men forward as the main villain. Never seen that before. In a training accident, Brashear saves the alpha racist after he panics. The racist gets the medal for bravery because this is the Navy. In spite of all the obstacles, Brashear earns respect from his mates and specifically from Sunday. Brashear’s big moment comes in the recovery of an H-Bomb off the coast of Spain. Brashear is injured in the process and has to go through grueling rehab to try to return to diving. Luckily, he has his ex-racist instructor to berate him into bucking the system.
“Men of Honor” oozes sincerity. It is definitely an Old School biopic. This type of movie still existed in 2000! “Born on the Fourth of July” came out in 1989. Although made by Fox, you could easily think it is a Disney film. Numerous clichés sink it and there is no recovery crew. Sunday rides the redemption train so De Niro has something to do besides play a stereotypical racist and drill instructor type. The man is able to play two stock characters at once! Without breaking a sweat. Another well-worn trope is Brashear overcoming odds. Since you have seen standard biopics before, there is never a doubt that Brashear will succeed. The movie includes the usual dastardly authority figures. It has an overarching theme that American attitudes changed because of men like Carl Brashear. And the Navy changed. This partially explains why the Navy would have cooperated with a movie that highlights its institutional racism. Patting itself on the back was part of it, but let’s also give the Navy credit for encouraging the making of a movie about one of its greatest heroes.
If it was not for the cast, this movie would not have been made and would not have had any impact. Gooding is perfect in a movie that plays to his strengths as an actor. I doubt they spent much time casting the role. De Niro is also good, but he could play Sunday in his sleep. I give him credit for making the movie. It says something about his conscience. The big casting head-scratcher is Charlize Theron as Sunday’s wife. Talk about stretching to reach a key demographic, with no shame. Plus, the movie could claim to have three Oscar winners.
Carl Brashear deserved this movie. I am sure I am not alone in not having heard of him before the movie came out. He is a legitimate hero and ground-breaker and his story is entertaining enough to not need the extreme Hollywood treatment. It is the type of movie that you enjoy watching, but you spend a lot of time wondering how much is true. And there are plot developments that an intelligent viewer will be absolutely sure are bull crap. For instance, the movie jumps the shark by throwing in a preposterous encounter with a Soviet sub. If we are already peeing in our pants, do you really have to go for poop? Overall, the movie is average in accuracy for a movie of this type. As you can read below, the gist of the story is true. The screenwriter has enhanced every incident to maximize the racism and odds-overcoming themes. It tells you something when you research a movie and only the main character is based on a real person. For instance, Sunday is a composite character based on two different instructors – one of whom was a supporter of Brashear’s efforts.
I’ll give the movie credit for sincerity, but it is nothing special and certainly not one of the best war movies. It’s another good example of a movie that encourages some to learn more about the subject.
GRADE = C
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The background is accurate. Brashear grew up as a sharecropper’s son (although he was not an only child). He was a good swimmer so he did break stereotypes with that skill. He was unmotivated when it came to school attendance and dropped out to work in a gas station. In 1948 he ran away to join the Navy. He was a cook on the USS Hoist when he attended the Diving and Salvage School in Bayonne, New Jersey. The incident where Sunday rescues the chopper crewman is fictional. The racist commanding officer is also fictional. The instructors and classmates did not need to be encouraged to behave like the racists that some of them were. The treatment was basically the snubbing and note variety. Some of the notes said bon mots like “we’re going to drown you today, n-----“. There was no incident involving the rescue of a bigoted mate. Brashear did graduate as the first African-American Navy Diver. His first job was retrieving 16,000 rounds of ammunition from a sunken barge. He then went on to salvaging planes, including a Navy Blue Angel. He spent some time as a military escort for Pres. Eisenhower who gave him a souvenir knife in appreciation.
The incident involving the hydrogen bomb is known as the Palomares Incident. A B-52 bomber carrying four nukes collided with a KC-135 tanker and both went down off the coast of Spain in 1966. Three of the bombs were recovered on land. It took more than two months to find the last one which was on the ocean floor at a depth of 2,500 feet. Unmanned submersibles were used to try to raise it, but complications required divers to attach a cable after a submersible raised it to about a hundred feet depth. Brashear going down to hook up the cable on the floor would have been impossible since the Navy did not allow divers to go below 350 feet. There was probably a Soviet sub in the Atlantic Ocean at the time, but there was absolutely no close encounter as depicted in the movie’s silliest moment. The USS Hoist was part of the recovery effort, but it was the USS Petrel that did the heavy lifting. Brashear did come out of the incident as the main star and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal (the highest honor for a non-combat feat). The movie does a good job covering Brashear’s accident, amputation, and recovery. There was no trial, instead he had to prove his abilities to doctors. Part of the testing involved climbing a ladder with a lot of weight on. He became the first amputee to be re-certified for diving. Two years later he became a Master Diver, the first African-American to reach that level.