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(2000) (Cuba Gooding Jr., Robert De Niro) (R)

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Drama: An African-American sailor must overcome racism and other obstacles as he attempts to become the first black Master Chief Navy Diver.
Carl Brashear (CUBA GOODING JR.) is the son of a black Kentucky sharecropper who's determined to make something of his life. A longtime underwater diving fan, Carl enlists in the Navy, hoping to become a diver, but finds himself stuck in the galley due to the racial restrictions of both the time and the institution.

A lucky break and a compassionate officer, Capt. Pullman (POWERS BOOTHE), get Carl reassigned as a seaman on a search and rescue ship where he first encounters Billy Sunday (ROBERT DE NIRO), a Master Chief Diver who risks his life, and disobeys direct orders, in an attempt to save another man's life. As a result, Sunday evokes the wrath of his superior officer, Hanks (DAVID CONRAD), and finds his diving career finished due to medical complications.

Two years later, Sunday is the instructor at the U.S. Navy Dive and Salvage School in New Jersey that's run by Mr. Pappy (HAL HOLBROOK), a one-time Navy star whose mental instability led to his current post. Sunday's none too happy about the hand life has dealt him. His marriage to Gwen (CHARLIZE THERON) is rocky due to their drinking problems and his continual resentment of no longer being a diver, so he often takes out his frustrations on his students.

One of them is Carl, who, with a recommendation from Pullman, enrolls in Sunday's school, only to find racist attitudes from him, Pappy and most of the other students, including Rourke (HOLT McCALLANY). His only friend turns out to be Snowhill (MICHAEL RAPAPORT), a stuttering student who rubs Sunday the wrong way.

Although he works hard to graduate, Carl learns that his academic grades might keep him back, so he enlists the tutoring aide of Jo (AUNJANUE ELLIS), a pre-med student and the romantic sparks immediately fly between them. With his grades improving, Carl sets out to prove himself in both training school and beyond, and must then overcome various obstacles along the path to his goal of becoming a Master Chief Navy Diver.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Throughout their careers, filmmakers must make all sorts of decisions and confront various obstacles while making their films, and time is certainly one of the more prominent ones in both regards. For starters, directors are urged to complete basic shooting within a prescribed number of weeks since each day on location can cost an exorbitant amount of money.

They must also consider how long their film will be, with the studios again encouraging and/or demanding that they keep running times in check as shorter lengths equal more daily showings that can then equal bigger box office numbers. Finally, filmmakers must often consider when the film's being released in the calendar year and some find themselves being rushed into completing every aspect of the filmmaking process in order to meet a certain deadline.

Although all of those temporal aspects obviously affect the filmmaker - usually in more negative rather than positive ways - the running length of the film may have the most impact. Although the general rule of thumb is that one screenplay page equals one minute of screen time, various factors can affect that. Whatever the case, many studio heads get nervous when any film passes the two-hour mark, regardless of whether the subject matter - such as that regarding biographical material spanning many years - necessitates additional time.

Part of that - and notwithstanding the success of long films such as "Titanic" and "Dances With Wolves" -- is because moviegoers, like students in the classroom, often find their attention spans severely taxed as the minutes pile up. As such, filmmakers needing the time to tell their stories often find themselves facing self and studio imposed restrictions on how lengthy their films can and/or should be.

While only the insiders will know that truth about how any or all of that pertains to George Tillman, Jr.'s sophomore film, "Men of Honor," the end result is a picture that often feels too episodic and fractured for it and the audience's own good. Written by Scott Marshall Smith (marking his feature film debut), the film is based on the life of real life navy diver Carl Brashear, the first African-American to attain the rank of Master Chief Navy Diver.

Notwithstanding that Smith and Tillman ("Soul Food") have taken some artistic liberties in recounting Brashear's quest and struggles (Smith states that his goal was to be true to Brashear's spirit, not his shirt size) and a running time of a bit more than two hours, the film suffers from the same cinematic malady that befalls many other biopics that attempt to cram a large number of years into just a few hours of screen time.

Namely, that means that the film's various scenes feel like a string of individual episodes linked together only by chronology and the protagonist's life events. While that's somewhat to be expected from such a biographical format (and actually works in documentary form) and it certainly doesn't make the film bad by any means, it does have some negative repercussions.

For one, such an episodic nature inhibits a true sense of seamless continuity and uninterrupted, forward moving momentum. It also means that certain characters and plot elements feel shortchanged and/or underdeveloped. For instance, that particularly applies to the character of Jo played by Aunjanue Ellis ("Map of the World," "In Too Deep"). While the real life woman obviously played an important part in Carl's life, the character here feels more like a plot requirement or contrivance called in when necessitated by the script to provide some conflict, and discarded and thus absent at most other times.

The same somewhat holds true for Robert De Niro's character, Billy Sunday. Reportedly a composite of many military types Brashear encountered over the years, the character gets the most screen time second only to that of the protagonist, but we never really know much about him or his apparent alcoholism that similarly seems like an underdeveloped and unresolved plot contrivance. It's only a testament to De Niro ("Meet the Parents," "Analyze This") that his character rises above the stereotypical "drill sergeant" characterizations and comes off as a compelling creation.

Of course, the film is all about the life and times of the real Carl Brashear. Notwithstanding the episodic structure under which he must work, Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Chill Factor," "Jerry Maguire") does a terrific job portraying him. Playing the underdog character who overcomes the racism and resultant racial restrictions of the time as well as that of the demanding "drill sergeant" type instructor, Gooding imbues the character with enough sympathetic and "can do" spirit that you can't help but root for him to succeed.

As far as the other performances are concerned, Charlize Theron ("The Legend of Bagger Vance," "The Cider House Rules") can't do much but look pretty (which she does rather well) in her underdeveloped role as Sunday's occasionally alienated wife. Michael Rapaport ("Lucky Numbers," "Bamboozled") creates a likable ally for Brashear, but, like Theron and others, suffers from a lack of substantial screen time.

Playing the film's "villains," Hal Holbrook ("The Firm," "All the President's Men") and David Conrad ("Return to Paradise," "The Weekend") serve their purpose of providing extra conflict for the protagonist's goal, but the former is too shallowly constructed and the latter too obvious in his villainy to come off as believable, flesh and blood type characters.

While it's a hard thing to pull off, and many other related biopics suffer from the same problem, it's too bad that the filmmakers here couldn't make the film's individual scenes - some of which are quite riveting and/or powerful - feel more like part of a cohesive whole rather than as episodic highlights of a real man's life.

If not for that problem and the fact that various characters are underdeveloped or temporally challenged, this could have been a great film. As it stands, it's still entertaining and clearly benefits from solid and engaging performances from Gooding and De Niro, but it isn't as good as it could and should have been. As a result, "Men of Honor" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 4, 2000 / Posted November 10, 2000

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