Men of Honor (2000) **1/2
Directed by George Tillman. Written by Scott Marshall Smith, based on the life of Carl Brashear. Photography, Anthony B. Richmond. Editing, John Carter. Production design, Leslie Dilley. Music, Mark Isham. Producers, Robert Teitel , Bill Badalato. Cast: Robert De Niro (Billy Sunday), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carl Brashear), Charlize Theron (Gwen), Aunjanue Ellis (Jo), Hal Holbrook (Mr. Pappy), Michael Rapaport (Snowhill), David Conrad (Hanks), Powers Boothe (Captain Pullman) ,David Keith (Captain Hartigan), et al. A Fox 2000 Pictures release. 128 minutes. Prudishly and illogically rated R (for Navymen's salty language)
Biopics (biographical picture) have been a staple genre since movies began. They--including Hollywood productions--are overwhelmingly "creative," readjust fancifully the lives of notable persons, invent, adapt, prettify... and make historians despair.
Yet many of those films have been major hits. For example, the movies directed by German-born actor and director William Dieterle who achieved fame and glory with a string of MGM pictures with great actors: "The Story of Louis Pasteur" (1936), "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937), "Juarez" (1939), "Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet" (1940), "A Dispatch from Reuters" (1940), "Tennessee Johnson" (1942).
There have been movies about baseball greats like Lou Gehrig, "Pride of the Yankees" (1942); about a remarkable polio-treating nurse, "Sister Kenny" (1946); about the famous nurse Florence Nightingale in "White Angel" (1936) (by Dieterle) or in the British "Lady with a Lamp" (1951); about "Nurse Edith Cavell" (1939), that brave woman who, during World War I, helped Allied soldiers escape German-occupied Belgium and ended up before a firing squad. The list is enormous.
In the heyday of biopics (the 1930s and 1940s) the world was younger, the audiences more naive than now, the film critics fewer and less sophisticated, at least when dealing with history of the big screen. But flights of fancy and non-scholarship notwithstanding, those movies contributed a great deal to educating their spectators. The biopics were a wonderful introduction to facts and persons which only a small fraction of the masses knew anything about or even had ever heard of.
Today, in the area of films about real people and events, the more discriminating viewers and reviewers are more demanding than in the past, The case of "Men of Honor" is another litmus test.
It is "based on" (words that ring the alarm bell) the life of Carl Brashear who was the first black to be accepted (grudgingly) to the Navy's Salvage school. He became an ace deep-sea diver and later a role model hero.
In those days (late 1950s on) the Armed Forces were officially integrated, but there was still no lack of violent, rampant racism. It took superhuman will, tenacity, patience as well as talent to get to where Carl Brashear got. So what we have here is a feel-good movie and a feel-bad one rolled into one during two-plus hours of spectacle. But how many of the details are true and how many are Hollywood?
What rings truest is the feel-bad side. Carl was the son of a Kentucky sharecropper whose struggle to survive is realistically shown as pure horror. Sad and powerful too are most of the many episodes of Brashear's painful rise within a white and openly hostile military milieu. Without revealing the march of events, it is obvious to me that this huge and painful aspect of the movie is its best element.
The feel-good part is another story. Robert De Niro plays Billy Sunday, a super-talented Master Chief and Carl's immediate superior at diving school. Billy is a rebellious, authority-defying maverick, an alcoholic at some point, and while superior at his job, flawed in many other ways. Yet he will turn out to be a man with a conscience.
All this could be true, but is it? And all his is vitiated by bucketfuls of movie cliches, excessive colorfulness, improbable dialogue and speechmaking, paint by numbers progression, and much else that required a suspension of disbelief.
This story also echoes quantities of movies that feature tougher-than-hell D.I.s, movies about Marines shaping up on Parris Island, movies with typically Hollywoodian moments complete with Big Emotions made even bigger by a Too Big Musical Score.
De Niro, who at times is like a parody of Douglas MacArthur plus Popeye, has had better roles, though even here, his being De Niro does salvage some of the silliness.
Even so, in the footage of Sarl and Billy, the two leading characters, when their personal lives are depicted the film piles up unconvincing or phony or cute passages. A sampling, in no order of priority:
In the opening scenes in Kentucky, we glimpse the boy Carl's beautiful mother. She is oddly chic within a context of people who live in misery --at least I remember her as elegant. The romance between Carl and and a lady librarian plus medical student is touching, partly because Jo (Aunjanue Ellis) is good and appealing. But the war hero commandant of the diving school (Holbrook) is so totally gaga that his mega-racism is ludicrous and ineffectual, more a mental case than anything else. Worse yet, Gwen (Charlize Theron) who seems to be De Niro's child-wife, is a totally useless, unclear and unneeded character.
Where the guillotine's blade falls is in the last sequence, set in a military courtroom. It is so "inspirational," colorful, sentimental and fabricated that the audience should be provided with certificates of authenticity.
The film does keep you going, does perform a good service by acquainting us with the unusual and admirable Carl Brashear, but is also as untrustworthy as the near totality of biopics. One would think that in the second century of movies there must be ways to maximize veracity and minimize theatrics. Yet the picture does have a saving grace -- in that it deals clearly with the scourge of racism. This can make us forgive "Men of Honor" many of its sins.
Technically it's A-1 and, I suppose, true to deep-sea procedures in sequences that make the divers in heavy gear look like immigrants from Jules Verne and "20,000 Leagues under the Sea."