It must have been exhilarating being a deep-sea diver in the 1950s--the thrill of slogging through a dimly lit world, your life depending on the oxygen pumping through the fragile cable attached to your suit. Carl Brashear could tell you a thing or two about the feeling. As the first African American to take the plunge for the Navy, Brashear spent plenty of time on the ocean floor--and, as Men of Honor shows us, he had to overcome an ocean's worth of obstacles to get there. The first time the newly enlisted Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) sees a diving suit--you know, the kind with the metal-grated fishbowl helmets that now adorn the bottom of aquariums--he's hooked. He requests a reassignment and lands at the Navy's Dive School, under the chapped-raw thumb of Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), an ex-Master Chief diver with a racist streak and some serious issues with authority. Reportedly, Sunday is an amalgam of all the good ol' bureaucrats who tried to ride the real Brashear off the docks. De Niro barks in a Southern accent, devours a MacArthuresque corncob pipe and curses a blue streak--he's Popeye with a mean-on. His neck hasn't been this red since he terrorized Nick Nolte in Cape Fear. Gooding's Brashear is harder to fathom. Wending his way through the promo-interview circuit, the actor waxed effusive about the all-too-rare opportunity to play a positive African American role model, instead of the gang-banger and ex-con roles he's usually offered. What rookie scriptwriter Scott Marshall Smith gives him isn't a role model, but a motivational speech: Hollywood's version of Brashear is an earnest automaton who's willing to sacrifice everything--including his body and his family--to attain the rank of Master Chief. Nothing fazes this guy--not the smoldering prejudice of the white divers, not the physical and verbal abuse from Sunday, not even the loss of one of his legs, nearly slashed off by a snapped winch line during a salvage mission. Even Richard Gere, whose character had far less to overcome in An Officer and a Gentleman, was afforded a few moments of self-doubt and a chance to tear into Louis Gossett Jr. Gooding's Brashear just grits his teeth and takes the plunge. And what is it, exactly, that drives him to these superhuman feats? It's obviously not the joy of diving. Director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) spends surprisingly little time submerging his camera. Instead, it's that "be the best" admonition offered by Brashear's dad (Carl Lumbly), a disturbingly intense sharecropper who worked the Kentucky fields to give his son a better life. In one of the film's several clumsy touches, Brashear totes around dad's old radio with the letters "ASNF"--as in "A Son Never Forgets"--burned into it and a black-and-white of Brashear Sr., looking haunted and severe.
"Because they said I couldn't have it" is Brashear's succinct answer when his future wife asks why he wants to ascend to Master Chief status so badly. That's a fine-sounding mantra, but it also proves a selfish one. That both Brashear and Sunday are willing to nearly self-destruct to do it Their Way suggests that they aren't truly men of honor.