Good, old-fashioned Hollywood stories of inspiration, particularly those rooted in true-life events, often are too cornball for consumption, with writers piling on the melodrama and the clichés but squeezing out all the gritty references to reality, particularly those that might cause audiences to experience more than momentary discomfort.
"Men of Honor," thankfully, takes the middle road, with the story of Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the first African-American diver in the U.S. Navy. It's a moving tale, largely lit by the captivating tension-and-release relationship between the doggedly determined Brashear and Master Chief Billy Sunday, a composite character played by Robert De Niro with his usual gravitas, edginess and zest for the role.
Director George Tillman Jr. ("Soul Food") wastes little time shuttling from Brashear's beginnings, as the dirt-poor son of a Kentucky sharecropper, to his life as a new Navy recruit. "Don't come back here, not for a long time," dad says. His son pays heed, soon shipping out to the South Pacific, where he winds up stuck in the kitchen of the U.S.S. Hoist. He quickly demonstrates his abilities as an expert swimmer and is assigned to the ship's all-white search-and-rescue team.
Talent may be one thing. But unofficial discrimination is still the rule of the day in the Navy of the '50s, and Brashear is told in no uncertain terms that he'll never enter diving school. Two years and 100 or so letters to officials later, he breaks that color barrier, gaining admission to the program and arriving at the Bayonne, N.J., naval base with an eager-beaver attitude and a backsack.
Brashear's welcome isn't exactly a friendly one: All of his bunkmates, except the stuttering Snowhill (Michael Rapaport, fresh off "Lucky Numbers" and "Bamboozled"), refuse to share housing with an African American. The new arrival's hospitality package also includes a tersely worded death threat, tacked to his bed. The powers-that-be at the base, going all the way up to the nutty retired war hero played masterfully by Hal Holbrook, don't exactly offer any assurances that the racial tension will improve.
Sunday, of course, thanks to a little dramatic license taken by rookie screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith, becomes Brashear's chief nemesis and, eventually, a strong ally. Somewhat reminiscent of the drill instructors of "Full Metal Jacket" and "An Officer and A Gentleman," he's a certified hard-ass, calling the recruits "ladies," routinely humiliating them and constantly reminding him of the power he holds over their fates. "He worked for God and I am God," the decorated diver says about the difference between the revival preacher of the same name and the tough Master Chief.
De Niro, not surprisingly, enriches his character with a complexity probably deeper than was written. The way he puffs on his corncob pipe, looking down at Brashear and condescendingly giving him the nickname "cookie," conveys far more menace than any amount of physical violence might. His downward spiral, too, as he chafes against the restraints of the system, turns to alcohol, and manages to maintain a shaky relationship with a young, sexy wife played by Charlize Theron (just seen in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "The Yards"), is absolutely convincing.
And so is the work of Gooding Jr., who turns down the manic, comic-edged intensity in favor of a stillness and single-mindedness, the kind of drive that it took Brashear to achieve his goals. Thanks to the high-caliber performances of Gooding Jr. and De Niro, and the overall emotional heft of "Men of Honor," Brashear's achievements will be remembered long into the future and may well inspire others in their own endeavors. Too bad about that generic title, though.