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MEN OF HONOR

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Cuba Gooding, Jr., Robert DeNiro, Hal Holbrook, Charlize Theron, Aunjanue Ellis, David Keith
Director:  George Tillman, Jr.
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  128 Minutes
Release Date:  April 10, 2001

Film ***1/2

Sometimes, the best motivation for chasing your dreams is when the entire world says you canít have them.  Carl Brashear is a real life hero who did exactly that.  The son of a sharecropper, he entered the United States Navy at a time when African American men had no hope of becoming anything more than a cook or a valet, and became the first man of color to enter the exclusive diving school and emerge on the other end of his career as a Master Chief.  And, as it turns out, racial prejudice was not the biggest barrier between him and his ultimate goal.

Men of Honor is the kind of underdog-makes-good film that would be almost impossible to buy into if the story it was based on wasnít true.  But even more, itís the kind of film that makes you believe the impossible is possible, and reminds us that some dreams are worth the fight.

How different history might have been if Carl (Gooding) had given in and given up.  After all, as a black man, he wasnít even allowed to swim in the ocean at the same time as his white sailor counterparts.  How could he hope to make it into diving school?  To make matters worse, the master of the school, Billy Sunday (DeNiro) is a racist who wants no part of Brashear, nor does his commanding officer, Mister Pappy (Holbrook, in an underused and one-dimensional role).  The relationship between these two polarized and equally stubborn men drives the heart of the story:  when Sunday finally allows Brashear into the school, it is for no other purpose than to see him fail.  Yet Sundayís love for diving is stronger than his hate for race; though this isnít a typical feel-good warming up for DeNiroís character, he does begin to show signs of respect for Carlís ability.

To earn his certification as a diver, Brashear is forced to endure a test of stamina and ability far worse than any of the white men in training with him, and itís a test that proves that sometimes sheer will and determination can win out over physical and mental exhaustion.  But thatís the unfair world Carl has entered into:  because of his race, he cannot get by with just succeeding.  He has to be the best.

The second part of the story takes a surprising turn, which I wonít ruin for those who havenít yet seen the film or are familiar with Carl Brashearís story.  Itís the kind of cruel topper that no one, least of all Carl, could expect, and he finds himself facing greater odds than any heíd conquered up to that point to make his dream of becoming the Navyís first African American Master Chief come true. 

Cuba Gooding, Jr. is amazing as Brashear, capturing a fire of doggedness and unbreakable spirit we can only imagine the real Carl Brashear must have had.  His performance was actually my pick for best of the year; as is often the case, itís too bad Oscar overlooked him.  Equally good is Robert DeNiro, who dons a perfect Mississippi accent and delves into Sunday as more than just a caricature to be converted:  we see beyond the hate and disdain even early on, which makes Sunday more real to us, and more easy to accept as his ideas begin to chance because of Brashear.

George Tillman, Jr. does an impressive job directing a deceptively simple story fraught with technical complications:  both in and out of water, and dealing with scenes where the strongest moments are not necessarily the most accented ones, but intuitively knowing when to bring up and when to lower the pace for maximum effect.

Americans love to cheer for the underdog, which makes Men of Honor the kind of film most will respond to on a purely gut level.  The fact that Mr. Brashear accomplished what he did in life makes the story on the screen all the more compelling.  We want to look at people up there and think to ourselves, ďthat could be us.Ē  Carl Brashear is a living, breathing example of an ordinary person capable of extraordinary achievements.

Video ****

This is a simply superb anamorphic transfer from Fox.  Men of Honor runs the full gamut of lighting schemes and colors, and this DVD far surpasses even the theatrical showing I watched of the film.  The waters are blue and beautiful on the surface, dark and foreboding underneath, and all images are captured perfectly, with no distortions or loss of integrity despite the varied levels of lighting.  Detail is sharp and crisp throughout, with no noticeable softness, grain, or evidences of compression.  The print itself is clean and free from distracting nicks and scars.  All in all, a textbook, reference quality effort.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive, with a full range of front and rear stages for maximum ambience and effect.  The musical score swells and orchestrates from all channels, and crossovers during key action sequences are clean and smooth.  The subwoofer delivers during the diving scenes and other key moments.  Dialogue is perfectly rendered, as are all effects and music.  This is a dynamic and pleasurable listen.

Features ****

When Fox says Special Edition, they mean it!  The disc starts with a terrific group commentary track featuring director Tillman, star Gooding, and producer Robert Teitel, who open up and discuss all the facets of making the movie, from working with DeNiro to the inspiring on-set presence of the real Carl Brashear.  There is a good making-of featurette and a short documentary on Brashear (covering some of the same ground, but in better detail).  There is a Brian McKnight music video for ďWinĒ, plus the trailer and some TV spots.  The menu screens are animated and attractive as an added bonus.

Summary:

Men of Honor is a terrific achievement, and a film that will have you cheering.  Carl Brashear overcame many obstacles to make his dream come true, and his story is one that will have everyone who watches is believing they can do the same.