Military training films are becoming so common that they are becoming a genre unto themselves. Among the more prominent we have, `Officer and a Gentleman', `Top Gun', `GI Jane', and now `Men of Honor'. The fact that this one happened to be true doesn't change the fact that the formula is the same. This film is probably most like `GI Jane' since it focuses on the desegregation angle.
The story is actually quite inspirational and is probably the best human-interest story among those mentioned above. Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is unquestionably a man of great courage and principle, and his strength of character shines through brightly in this film. Unfortunately, director George Tillman has tunnel vision in presenting the characters and eschews character development of various characters other than Brashear in favor of showing Brashear in a constant state of adversity. Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro) is a central figure, and except for the initial scene, the fistfight and a couple of scenes with his wife, we don't know much about him. For instance, Brashear sees the scars on Sunday's palms and we are to assume that he worked a plow, but there is no follow-up on that point. Mr. Pappy (Hal Holbrook) gets only one short scene by which we can judge him. The rest of his screen time shows him pacing around and ranting. If a director is going to make a human-interest story, he needs to humanize the characters.
Cuba Gooding Jr. gives an outstanding performance as Brashear. This is probably the best I've seen him. This is a role and a character that is far more complete than any part he has played before, and he rises to the occasion. In `Jerry Maguire', Rod Tidwell was a fascinating, but one-dimensional character with the depth of a rain puddle. Brashear is much more complex and grounded, and the issues he faces are life crises, making the part far more challenging. This is an excellent recovery from Gooding's last role in `Chill Factor', a film so dreadful that it was almost an act of professional suicide to take the part.
After a stint trying his hand as a comedian (`Analyze This', `The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle', `Meet The Parents'), Robert DeNiro is back to his dramatic roots with an outstanding performance. DeNiro isn't a bad comedian, he is just such a great dramatic actor that it seems like he shouldn't waste his time doing comedy. DeNiro endows Billy Sunday with a rock hard personality belying a tortured soul. It is a pleasure watching him work.
It seems every film I watch lately has Charlize Theron in it. I saw `The Legend of Bagger Vance', `Men of Honor' and `The Yards' right in a row and I was beginning to wonder if she had a part in every film in 2000 (actually, she only did five). This was a minor role for Theron, but she carried it off well and managed to stay with DeNiro step for step. David Keith, who co-starred with Richard Gere in `Officer and a Gentleman', has a cameo here
The DVD has some interesting special features, including reflections by the real Carl Brashear and some deleted scenes.
I enjoyed this film despite the hackneyed plot and the one-dimensional presentation. I rated it a 7/10. I'm a sucker for underdog stories and I have a fondness for stories where strength of character is the central theme. This film is particularly strong in both areas and brings us two memorable acting performances that compensate for some of the director's shortcomings.