What's the difference between something that's inspirational and something that's overwrought? Perhaps the question should have been discussed by the makers of Men of Honor. The story, based on the life of Navy Diver Carl Brashear, is indeed one of inspiration. During the long way up in his celebrated career, he constantly fought the raging monster of racism, first seen and heard in a sequence from his boyhood, when his father made him promise to strive for a better life than he, himself, had carved out. Joining the Navy just a few years after it had been desegregated, Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) still found segregation alive in the service, and was told, over and over, that he had no chance of becoming a member of the elite diving program he had set his eyes on.
Of course, if he didn't achieve the impossible goals he made for himself, the film wouldn't have been made. But in playing out that story, no cliche has been avoided, no happy solution to a challenging problem has been left out. Unfortunately, with so many walls set up for him to climb, and with him eventually going over pretty much every one of them, even though this is all true, an air of unbelievability remains.
With the majority of the story set in 1955, the film follows Brashear's grueling journey, one in which he refuses to take "no" for an answer, and shows that he's not one to follow rules, at least not unfair, racist ones. This immediately gets him both in trouble and ahead. Senior officers realize that he's got the gumption they're looking for. But one of them, Master Chief Navy Diver Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), an angry man with an agenda seemingly against the world, sees Brashear as a troublemaker -- perhaps one very much like himself -- and goes out of his way to give him plenty of grief.
Gooding and De Niro do their best to keep the film's focus on their characters, and both are outstanding. After a debilitating accident that ends his active career, De Niro's Sunday is loud, brash and out of control. He's also tough, nasty, and foul-mouthed. De Niro nails the role that, in lesser hands, would come off as caricature. Both he and Gooding get to do some great acting without words, letting plenty of emotion come through just by using facial expressions and body movement.
Actually, no one gives a bad performance, although most of the other actors are woefully underused. Michael Rapaport, with a convincing stutter, pops in and out of the film a few times as Snowhill, with no character development. Aunjanue Ellis, as Brashear's love interest, Jo, gives a couple of good dramatic speeches, but is mostly in the background, leaving the viewer to figure out how their relationship has been going. Charlize Theron, as Sunday's wife, Gwen, makes a few cameo appearances, and even then seems only to be around in order to look good wearing a series of bad wigs.
But the real problem here falls in the areas of writing, direction and editing. In its early stages, the script's construction works well, smoothly flying through long gaps in time to show Brashear's slow climb from farm to Navy to diver program, all the while focusing on the racial problems around him. But the script (from newcomer Scott Marshall Smith) soon gets bogged down in trying to lump his accomplishments on top of each other without taking a breather or letting the audience have one. It simply gets tiring watching all of this stuff happen over and over. And both direction and editing are so choppy, it eventually feels like being on a ship during a storm at sea.
Director George Tillman Jr. only has one previous film -- Soul Food -- under his belt. But editor John Carter has been at his craft since the early '70s, with Taking Off and The Karate Kid on his resume. Something just didn't click here. And neither does it click for the terrific composer Mark Isham, whose scores are usually filled with mood and texture. This time out, it's a soundtrack of heavy-handed patriotism that comes blaring up many times too often, the worst instance during a barroom breath-holding contest that would have worked much better with just crowd sounds.
There are parts of the film that work nicely, such as the beautifully presented jump forward in time that brings Brashear from his training to a mission well into his career. But there's too much working against it, from stilted dialogue to a crossover from endless good fortune to a maudlin episode to out-and-out sappiness. And talk about your manipulative endings! When a film shows people standing up and applauding, you know your head is being messed with shamelessly.