Finally, after a long stretch of mediocre comedies, Robert DeNiro returns to dramatic acting. Although a bit rusty, and not in a role that fully taps his range, the great American actor makes the most of the cards he's dealt as Bill Sunday, a racist master chief Navy diver in charge of training Navy salvage mates at a facility in Bayonne, N.J.
Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire) gives a solid performance as Carl Brashear, the first African-American man to be accepted into the Naval Dive School program within the newly integrated 1950s Navy.
Loosely based on the story of Carl Brashear's life and Navy career, Men of Honor overshoots its a mark as an enhanced screenplay, working harder than it needs in making a point of Brashear's tireless diligence and sense of honor in attaining master diver certification.
The cold and harsh world of Navy divers was a lot tougher in the '50s, before the U.S. Navy adopted Jacques Cousteau's self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Although in 1943 Cousteau invented his revolutionary answer to bulky diving bell suits that only allowed divers to descend to depths of 300 feet, the Navy took many more years before employing Cousteau's SCUBA equipment, which allowed divers to go to deeper classified depths. But the heavy diving bell suits had a certain Jules Verne kind of romantic charm that naturally lends itself to the big screen. In fact, much of the dramatic impact that drives Men of Honor is due to director of photography Anthony Richmond's work. (Richmond's long career stretches back to his work with director Nicholas Roeg on such visually stunning films as Don't Look Now, Bad Timing and The Man who Fell to Earth.) The underwater scenes feel as cold and awkward as the brave divers must have felt while confirmed inside their restrictive underwater spacesuits.
Men of Honor is a well-rounded family film that happens to contain some of the most impressive acting work from Robert DeNiro in years. And to his credit, Cuba Gooding Jr. gives DeNiro a lot to work against. Gooding Jr. handily fulfills the daunting physical demands of his role. Both actors are intensely captivating in the way they use their bodies as thinking extensions of Navy men completely focused on opposing goals.
Honor, as it turns out, is as much about focus, determination and family pride as it is about respect for military order or moral integrity. These very masculinely depicted values naturally penetrate the story in very predictable ways. The life-altering incidents that change Brashear and Sunday come as sudden internal and external forces of nature, emphasizing the trait of responsibility to themselves and to their individual pasts that the two men share.
While the editing of the story makes the movie feel a bit too long and jerky in places, it's a story that shows, one more time, the very thing that separates the men from the boys -- knowing when not to compromise. In these politically correct times, just as it was 50 years ago, there is tremendous pressure about what you can and cannot do to maintain honor. Carl Brashear chose to be a Navy master diver because everyone told him he could never do it. Bill Sunday squandered that precious rank because he lost sight of the road that had brought him to his station in life. Ironically, the lengths that Carl Brashear finally goes to in securing his position are navigated by the very man who fought him every inch of the way in getting there.
There can be no honor without demands and a sense of duty. Men of Honor welds these ideas just as a Navy salvage diver might -- with nervous hands and a sense of mission.