Based on a true story, "Men of Honor" (IMDb listing) tells the tale of Charles Brashear, the first African-American who reached the rank of Master Chief Diver in the U.S. Navy. Cuba Gooding, Jr. stars as Brashear, and Robert DeNiro supports as Billy Sunday, a volatile naval commander who, at first, thwarts Charles's attempts to rise in rank, then supports the determined young man as he slowly begins to beat the odds.
Written by Scott Marshal Smith and directed by George Tillman Jr., "Men of Honor" is only a mild diversion. Far too unsure of itself to build the natural confidence that comes with most bio-pics. Yet, through Tillman's steady direction, "Men of Honor" doesn't buckle completely. With a sharp eye for casting and locations, Tillman molds "Honor" like an old-fashioned military drama. It's too bad he cops out with predictable audience-pleasing moments.
With the recent disaster "Chill Factor" still looming, it's easy to forget just how good a dramatic actor Gooding is. His "Jerry Maguire" Oscar win was no fluke. Gooding commands "Honor" with his steely eyes and his ferocious animal stance. Not really allowed to chew the scenery like DeNiro, Gooding nevertheless creates a vulnerable and painfully human portrait of Charles Brashear. DeNiro is on the other side of the restraint spectrum. Reminding me of his "Cape Fear" performance, DeNiro brings a full-on southern-accent assault to "Honor," Equal parts hardass and jester, DeNiro is the jewel of the film. Unexpected are DeNiro's moments with co-star Charlize Theron (also currently seen in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "The Yards"). The two make a very odd married couple, and they milk the strange relationship for some laughs and some tears. It's a relief that Tillman never delves too deeply into their relationship, choosing instead to focus on Brashear.
Tillman, who also directed the sleeper "Soul Food," has shown himself to be a solid storyteller. "Honor" always moves forward, propelling Brashear's story through the tragedies and triumphs. However, Tillman is also a director with a tendency to go very broad with the emotional beats in his films. "Men of Honor" is not emotionally subtle, nor is it touching. Tillman even goes so far as to stage a climax that resembles a deep-sea "Rocky." Moments like these damage "Honor's" integrity and Tillman's willingness to jump through hoops doesn't do Brashear's story justice.
Filmfodder Grade: B-