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Wednesday, May 16, 2001
Are you ready to be yelled at?
By KAORI SHOJI
To see "Men of Honor" (released in Japan as "The Diver") is to walk into one of those bars where the clientele is mostly male (but not gay), full of the type of guys who spit on the floor while playing pool. To cut any ice in a place like this, one must be either: 1) Tommy Lee Jones; 2) Russell Crowe; or 3) Robert De Niro -- someone with thick forearms and a dense torso, a loud voice and bad clothes. So it's probably a good thing Robert De Niro is in this movie.
He plays a pipe-sucking, bourbon-swilling Navy master diver with a sadistic streak so obvious it glows in the dark. You're going to see him cause offense and strut his machismo, and you're going to hear a lot of yelling. It's just like being in one of those bars, so remember to bring a flask of whiskey.
Directed by George Tillman Jr. (who wrote the screenplay for "Soul Food"), "Men of Honor" is based on the story of Carl Brashear, the U.S. Navy's first black master diver. Brashear grew up on a small farm in Kentucky and enlisted in the Navy when he was 17. His hopes of a bright and heroic career were shattered when he was faced with the reality of flipping burgers in the cook's quarters where all "coloreds" were confined.
Brashear, however, refused to back down and was finally admitted into diving school. At the peak of his career, he had an accident that deprived him of a limb but that didn't stop him from reinstatement to active duty. He worked with a prosthetic leg for the next nine years before retiring in his 50s.
Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Brashear with uncharacteristic understatedness, which proves quite effective. The contrast between his character and that of his Naval Chief Billy Sunday (De Niro) is stark and occasionally even crude. Brashear is quiet, logical, patient and persevering. Sunday is a brash braggart who so easily loses control one wonders how he ever took up diving (a skill that calls for a good deal of calm) in the first place. But then, perhaps that's just De Niro.
Watch for the scene where Sunday busts a lung doing some deep-sea salvaging, wakes up in the hospital and is told he can never dive again. Enraged, Sunday immediately gets up and starts whacking orderlies over the head with bedpans, yelling the whole time -- "Raging Bull" all over again. This is not a man with a severe lung injury; this is a man who can take six bullets and be home in time for dinner.
This is the kind of boss Brashear must endure, if he is to graduate from Naval Diving School and break away from a lifelong career of menial labor. But it's clear that Chief Sunday is going to make things plenty hard. He tapes a sign on Brashear's bed: "We're gonna drown you, nigger." Sunday also does things like wake Brashear up at 2 a.m. with a water hose, drag him out of bed and dunk his head in a huge vat, yelling all the while.
But such antics just make Brashear better and stronger. He turns out to be the best diver on the entire base and, of course, this pisses the hell out of Sunday. At the same time, though, he feels a grudging admiration for this boy who refuses to quit. Brashear, for his part, knows that Sunday is the only one who shares his passion for diving excellence. Deep down, the pair have an understanding. On the surface, it's all racism and animosity.
Apart from the buzz resulting from the psychology, "Men of Honor" is an enlightening two hours of what it meant to be a diver before the days of wet suits and oxygen tanks. Men went underwater outfitted in gear that weighed 90 kg and helmets of brass or copper that screwed around the head like a vice. Air was transported through thick, cumbersome hoses that easily snagged on underwater debris and were just as easily snapped.
As Sunday so eloquently pointed (yelled) out: "If a navy diver is lucky, he will die young 200 feet [60 meters] underwater, for that is the closest he will ever get to being a hero. Hell, I don't know why anyone would want to be a navy diver!"
If Tillman and screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith made mistakes, it was in their attempt to fit the film into the marketing mode of "something for everyone." Meaning: femmes. Brashear's wife (Aunjanue Ellis) and Sunday's wife (Charlize Theron) both have little screen-time and come across as women left in the lurch by their husbands' ambitions, in spite of the little incidents that try to underscore their strength, independence, political correctness. Meaning: big yawns.
Hey, if you're gonna make a movie called "Men of Honor," then stick to men and men's issues and "don't sissy out, you hear me, boy?"
This closing shot was brought to you by: Mr. De Niro.