- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2000

Two out of four stars
TITLE: "Men of Honor."
RATING: R (Frequent profanity; occasional racial epithets and graphic violence)
CREDITS: Directed by George Tillman Jr.
RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes

The biographical melodramas "Remember the Titans" and "Men of Honor," which opens today, share a salutary filmmaking motive that eludes the typical thriller or farce.
They derive from the experiences and achievements of people who actually accomplished something that was difficult to do, against formidable odds.
"Men of Honor" celebrates a pretty astonishing sailor: Carl Brashear, who retired as a master chief petty officer in 1979, having broken the color line that once existed in the Navy's dive school, which trained deep-sea salvage divers.
He was the only black diver in the service for most of his Navy career, which began in 1948, shortly before President Truman issued the declaration that ended formal racial segregation in the armed forces. Chief Master Brashear also surmounted a crippling injury, using it as incentive for a singular comeback.
When his left leg was nearly severed above the ankle during a shipboard injury in 1966 and required amputation, Chief Master Brashear persisted in the belief that he could return to active duty.
He made good on this determination three years later, becoming the first master diver to resume his duties while also an amputee.
"Don't quit on me, ever," urges the hero's father, a Kentucky sharecropper embodied with brief but memorable intensity by Carl Lumbly in the early episodes of "Men of Honor."
By that time, Cuba Gooding Jr. has entered to portray Carl Brashear from the age of 17 in 1948 into maturity and his effort to recover from injury and resume active duty in the late 1960s.
There certainly is no quit in this overachiever, and it's stirring to follow most of his professional exploits, which shouldn't require a great deal of Hollywood solicitude and fudging to remain compelling.
As a matter of fact, quite a bit of intrusive solicitude and fudging gets in the way of consistent or wholehearted gratification. Despite their recurrent mediocrity and clumsiness, though, director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith never lose sight of the inherent dramatic and pictorial potential in the subject.
After all, it's innately difficult to become a diver, and the period in which Chief Master Brashear was active is fascinating in vintage respects. The candidates for this elite unit needed to operate in heavy armor, so "Men of Honor" gets to rediscover the diving props and methods of the 1950s and 1960s.
While struggling for mastery of a specialized skill, Brashear also must transcend fitful race prejudice and the volatile temperament of a mentor played by Robert De Niro.
Entrusted with a volcanic sideshow role, Mr. De Niro bellows and snarls as Billy Sunday, a fictionalized master diver who seems to have emerged from the redneck South and acquires a grudging fondness for Brashear, his most tenacious trainee.
As if Mr. De Niro weren't enough of a distraction by himself, the filmmakers insert Charlize Theron as a semiflashy, semipathetic Southern-belle spouse. They call her Gwen, but I prefer to think of her fondly as Floozie Sunday.
Mr. Gooding, who isn't bad when he can avoid betraying telltale vanities about embodying an honest-to-goodness, living-and-breathing, proud-to-wear-the-uniform hero, is matched with the wistfully named Aunjanue Ellis as the future Mrs. Brashear, a librarian called Jo.
After an appealing introduction during courtship interludes, the role reverts to token status. Benign neglect would be preferable to the hapless sequence in which Jo has to indulge a superfluous hissy fit to complicate Brashear's recovery.
Movie telescoping plays a certain havoc with the concluding episodes. A week of physical tests under the supervision of a Navy panel and another year of probationary service passed before Chief Master Brashear could return to active duty.
The film reduces this methodical process to an absurdly contrived courtroom hearing that pits the cheerleading forces of Brashear and his supporters against a nasty Navy bureaucrat (inserted in the early going as a hostile officer).
Everything comes down to Brashear's being required to take 12 unassisted steps in his ponderous diving suit after which jubilation reigns supreme. One surmises that it was the birth of the 12-step program.

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