Men of Honor opens with a scene that sets up many of its themes and interests, not the least of which is the introduction of Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro) with his face beaten to a bruised and lumpy pulp. At the start of the film, Navy Master Chief Sunday limps into a train station in Charleston, North Carolina, 1966. This loud-mouthed good ol’ boy and his stanky-drunk Navy buddies, like him, bloodied and pissed off, settle onto a bench to regale each other with memories of their recent barroom battle, but Sunday’s attention is diverted by the television, which shows his old diver-training-school student and nemesis, Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.), off in the Pacific, looking for a lost nuclear device on the ocean floor. When Sunday pays attention to Brashear, his associates are startled, to say the least. And soon they’re wondering aloud if he’s a “nigger-lover.”
Because most of what follows will take Brashear’s point of view—as he struggles from his sharecroppers’ son beginnings to his eventual triumphs and tragedies as a Navy Diver—this opening scene, in which Sunday observes Brashear, is striking. It’s not just that Sunday shows that he is simultaneously impressed and dismayed by his former pupil’s success (a success that Sunday did just about everything in his power to prevent); it’s also that Sunday’s instant of recognition makes Brashear something of a spectacle and celebrity, a good man doing good work. It’s almost as if Sunday can’t escape this inverse Frankenstein monster he’s created, so much decency and courage emerging out of so much bad behavior and intention on Sunday’s part. And in this way, the scene spells out the movie’s primary concern with the complicated relationship between ambivalent racist Sunday and unabated hero Brashear, and the ways that their repeated clashes reflect, comment on, and eventually shape U.S. military “history,” at least as it’s recounted here. While Brashear is based on a real-life person and Sunday is a fictional character (a composite of various embodied obstacles in Brashear’s Navy career), in George (Soul Food) Tillman Jr.‘s film, they come together in a neatly choreographed dance of righteous nobility in the face of ignorance and fear. Sunday learns his lesson and Brashear endures.
If Sunday’s redemption is a bit suspect—as Brashear’s superior officer during the 1950s, he literally almost kills the young diver, under the auspices of keeping the Navy racially “pure”—Brashear is definitively heroic from jump. After the train station set-up, the film cuts to 1943 rural Kentucky, where a muscular young Brashear is plowing fields with his daddy (Carl Lumbly), who tearfully implores his son, “Don’t end up like me” (the line is accompanied by background thunder, as if such emphasis is needed). As his mother (Lonetta McKee) looks on in the background, Carl leaves town to enlist in the Navy, supposedly already desegrated by Harry Truman. But of course, the recruit soon finds that he’s relegated to kitchen duty. Determined to be a Master Diver (and not incidentally, the Navy’s first black Master Diver), Brashear eventually works his way to a New Jersey training facility, where he runs into Billy Sunday, himself a courageous diver who’s so ornery that he’s been repeatedly busted in rank, until he’s been consigned to training divers rather than being one.
On their first meeting outside the diving school, Sunday calls Brashear “Cooky” and won’t let him in the gate, making him stand outside at attention, waiting to “report for duty” all day long. Such abuse, of course, only makes Brashear more resolute in his ambition to become a Navy officer—in large part because he remembers his promise to his father (whose photo he keeps by his bunk). This interaction at the gate is actually a short version of the rest of the plot, which repeats without much variation: Sunday is cruel, Brashear is resilient, again and again. And again. Brashear is hampered by a number of impediments in addition to Sunday’s personal abuses, including his seventh grade education (so that he has trouble with written exams and must seek the help of a young librarian, Jo [Aunjanue Ellis], who eventually becomes his wife), and the training school’s commanding officer, Mr. Pappy (Hal Holbrooke), who makes it his personal divine mission to keep Brashear from passing his Master Diver exams. Pappy spends his time with a little dog and never comes down from his lookout tower quarters, so that he appears to be especially cartoonish and bizarre, like some Southern-born descendent of The Caine Mutiny‘s infamously insane Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart).
As Brashear’s displays of valiant will are the film’s raison d’etre, everyone around him tends to showcase his greatness and/or learn by his example, from Pappy to Sunday to fellow diving student Snowhill (Michael Rapaport), whose life Brashear saves. Others inspired by Brashear include the unbelievably loyal Jo (who is initially impressed by his stubbornness, then dismayed by his lack of commitment to her and their child, and at last, proud of his accomplishments, trotted out for a public embrace in a Navy courtroom) and Billy Sunday’s pretty wife, Gwen (Charlize Theron), whose brief appearances reveal precious little about her own boozy despair, as their central function appears to be assuring you that Sunday must have occasional non-asshole moments, since he’s married to glamorous and self-assured cover-girl-of-the-moment Charlize Theron. So, even when he leaves “Nigger Go Home” notes on Brashear’s bunk, almost drowns Brashear during a practical exam, and then almost drowns himself during a barroom contest in which he and Brashear don diving helmets that fill up with water to see who can hold his breath the longest, Sunday somehow comes off as an okay guy whom you want to see spared eternal damnation.
When he finally decides to help Brashear make his Master Diver rank (after Brashear has had a leg amputated following an on-board accident and so needs retraining), Sunday recovers from his alcoholic haze and turns gallant himself, to fight off a malicious bureaucratic whippersnapper (Holt McCallany) who refuses to grant Brashear his more-than-deserved promotion. Sunday’s salvation makes for a remarkable story, almost as remarkable as Brashear’s himself, as both fight dreadful demons that would fell lesser men. Honor is one explanation for what these guys do, honor in a very traditional, very inflexible sense. As Sunday puts it in one of those scare-you-silly speeches that training officers give their military recruits (which is repeated on the film’s website), “The navy diver is not a fighting man. He is a salvage expert. If it’s lost underwater, he finds it… If he’s lucky, he dies young, two hundred feet beneath the waves, ‘cause that’s the closest he will ever get to being a hero. Hell, I don’t know why anybody would want to be a Navy Diver.”
This is the film’s underlying question, and Brashear’s answer—the one he voices anyway—is that he wants to be a diver because “they said I couldn’t have it.” His is a brash, brave, and admirable endeavor, to be sure. And it’s a good thing, we all know, that the military is still working to reduce racism within its ranks (as well as sexism and, to a much lesser extent, homophobia). Of course, the film’s attitude is partly a function of securing the Navy’s cooperation in the film’s production, illustrated by one Navy advisor’s observation in the press kit that Brashear’s “is an inspirational story, one that transcends race.” While I have no doubt that he believes this fiction (in spirit if not particulars, perhaps), Brashear’s story—even in its big-screen dilution—is so manifestly about long-term, institutionalized racism, that such a comment appears patently naive, even disingenuous (the movie even makes the case, somewhat ironically, that the Navy’s greatness is proved by the fact that someone so exceptional as Brashear would want to be part of it).
The trick in this film—and others which take on similar historically rehabilitative projects—is to set this racism in the past and attribute it to screwed-up (drunk, self-absorbed, insane) individuals, so all viewers who don’t identify with those individuals can feel reassured that they’re not to blame. In this way, it repeats moves made by Remember the Titans and Hurricane, both apparently assuming that there’s nothing quite so moving for mainstream (read: “mixed”) audiences as an exemplary, incredibly strong and patient black man suffering for the sins and at the hands of specifically designated evil characters who don’t begin to resemble anyone in those audiences.
Clearly, the casting of Robert De Niro will draw those audiences, and they will no doubt appreciate his story arc. But Men of Honor has a more ambitious undertaking in mind than showing this formidable white man bearing his own burden. Drawing inspirational juice from Brashear’s own story, the film also alludes to the tolls his decisions take on him, Jo, and their young son. It’s honestly too bad that the movie is so focused on the men of honor, the men in relation to one another, and doesn’t show more of these tolls, not only because they’re compelling, but also because they illustrate the most important point about the harm done by any kind of oppression, military or racist, or both.