Published November 1, 2000
The word “honor” turns up conspicuously in only one place, apart from the title, in Men of Honor, which was directed by George Tillman Jr. from a script by Scott Marshall Smith based on the true story of the U.S. Navy’s first black diver, Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.). This comes as Brashear is facing a military hearing charged with the task of deciding whether or not he is still fit for duty, in spite of the fact that he has got only one leg. A propos of nothing in particular, he says to the presiding officer, that he believes in the Navy’s traditions and, in particular, “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for our greatest tradition of all.”
“Which tradition is that?” asks the other.
“Honor, sir,” says Brashear. Obviously, the word is meant to provide a vaguely inspirational context for the climactic trial of strength, just like the swelling music, but the audience may be troubled by this last minute appearance of a fine-sounding word with no obvious connection to anything that has gone before. “What is honor?” asks Falstaff—and answers his own question. “A word.” So it would seem to be here. So far as we have been able to see, that without which Brashear wouldn’t be here is dogged determination, which is (perhaps) not quite the same thing. Having decided early in life that he means to be a Navy diver—and having promised his poor sharecropper father never to give up—he shows himself again and again willing to do anything it takes (anything honorable, that is) to achieve his ambition. His mainspring seems to have been wound up by his memory of his father’s parting words to him: “Make me a promise: Don’t end up like me.”
Or is the honor perhaps to be seen in his struggle against racist superior officers, especially the egregious “Mr. Pappy” (Hal Holbrook), the officer in charge of the diving school at Bayonne, New Jersey, who is said to have “more screws loose than a Studebaker” ? On first joining the Navy as it was at the time that President Truman desegregated the armed services in 1948, he is told by his fellow black seamen that there are only three options for him: to be a cook, an officer’s valet or to get out of the Navy. Of course he doesn’t accept this, and later, when asked “Why do you want this”—that is, to complete diving school—“so badly?” he replies: “Because they said I couldn’t have it.” And in the process of getting it he also wins over and makes a friend of the racist redneck diving instructor, Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro).
Certainly there is something honorable about overcoming prejudice, though it would be stretching things too far to call that the greatest tradition of the Navy. The film seems to try to appeal to our own cultural prejudices by making the bond between Brashear and Sunday their common contempt for authority, especially in the form of effete, college-educated officers who want to do things by the book (the book they themselves have written) and have no understanding of the warrior mentality. The institutional Navy, at least until the very end, is depicted as being full of bureaucrats and time-servers, techno-nerds as well as racists, while Brashear and Billy Sunday go up against each other man to man—in a breath-holding competition, for example—and both gain and give the respect we associate with honor.
Well, it’s something to be praised about the movie, if not quite enough to justify its title or to break through clearly from what quickly comes to seem the extraneous and rather soap-operaish matters that keep coming up mainly to intrude on the main story—including the marriages of both men and the effect on them of the alcoholism of one and the injury of the other. It would be nice to think that honor could be invoked in a Hollywood movie that did not involve a personal triumph over racism, ignorance, injury and addiction. After all, the armed services are presumably still around for something more than just the self-actualization of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. But we should be grateful for such small favors to the honorable as this movie amounts to