George Tillman Jr.’s Men of Honor is one of those Hollywood movies for which the term “old-fashioned” is both a compliment and a mark of the complimenter’s reservations. An uplift-minded story of personal and racial achievement set against the backdrop of the U.S. military circa the 1950s and ’60s, the film is itself an honorable project, one aimed at recording the life of a remarkable man named Carl Brashear, who became the Navy’s first black Master Diver. There’s no doubt Brashear’s story deserved telling. The question is whether it would have been better served by a documentary or a smaller dramatic film more invested in relaying the facts than in welding them to a superstructure of Hollywood fable.
I liked Men of Honor, make no mistake. Tillman’s direction displays a very smart blend of restraint and exuberance, and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s performance as Brashear is perhaps the best work to date by a young actor of extraordinary talents. The film also has the appeal of unveiling a hitherto unexamined professional world–who knew what Navy divers do?–and of paying attention to real American lives, something that Hollywood movies bother with too infrequently. Yet it’s also worth asking how real the film’s version of reality is. Men of Honor tells Brashear’s story mainly by focusing on his relationship with Master Chief Navy Diver Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), a tough-as-pig-iron trainer who at first opposes his candidacy and later champions him, yet nothing in the film itself tells you what the press notes reveal to critics who bother to read them: Sunday never existed. Invented by screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith, the character is described as “a composite of various Navy men whom Brashear met during his career.”
What to make of those words? I would venture, first, that such a composite is a perfectly defensible artistic device, one that’s been used in countless movies to give comprehensible dramatic shape to prolix and messy real-life events. The problem is, Sunday doesn’t strike me as an amalgam of anything or anyone real. He seems like an essentially fictional character made to order: the kind of lovable-badass opponent that Hollywood convention now automatically dictates for dramas of racial antagonism/bonding.
At its start, the story doesn’t appear to need him. Honoring the biographical record, Tillman shows Brashear growing up on a dirt-poor farm in Kentucky. When he decides to leave and join the Navy, it is 1948, the year Truman desegregated the military, and his hardbitten father (Carl Lumbly) urges him never to look back. In the Navy, Brashear is consigned with other blacks to the galley. But glimpses of deep-sea divers in action give him a passionate objective. He writes 100 letters over two years, and eventually finds himself the first black candidate at the Navy Diving School in Bayonne, N.J.
Sunday, the school’s chief instructor, is a former diver who injured himself in a heroic act of insubordination and now is consigned to teaching. He chomps a MacArthuresque corncob and refuses to let Brashear out of the figurative galley, referring to him forever as “cookie.” Whether or not you accept him as a composite of real-life models, Sunday is a particular type of movie construct, one that might be termed a benign, situational racist. That is, he’s nasty to Brashear because of the environment that’s bred him, not because of any deep, ineradicable hatred of blacks. This of course allows him to convert from antagonist to ally later in the story.
At first, Brashear is shunned by all of his fellow diving aspirants except for one stuttering sailor named Snowhill (Michael Rapaport), who explains his refusal to follow the crowd by saying that he’s “from Wisconsin.” No doubt, there’s some truth to the film’s suggestion that the military reacted to Truman’s order by sequestering its racism in enclaves of soldier elites. But the movie also pushes the point to absurd, cartoonish extremes in having the diving school run by an aged commander called Mr. Pappy (Hal Holbrook), who sits in a weird observational tower polishing his medals and issuing shrill block-the-darkie orders like some demented, cracker Wizard of Oz.
Thankfully, the story’s elements aren’t all confined to such hootable fantasies. Brashear also struggles against the limits of his seventh-grade education, and in the course of trying to pass written tests meets Jo (Aunjanue Ellis), a medical student who will become his teacher and wife. The scenes of diving, both during and after Brashear’s schooling, are another area where the film conjures up believable and compelling hardships. This is no lightweight gig with snorkels and flippers. The divers wear enormous, helmeted outfits like something out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, fed with oxygen from tanks at surface level. From beginning to end, their undersea tasks look devilishly perilous and difficult in the extreme.
In a not uncommendable sense, Men of Honor shows why American movies have come to rule the world: They valorize the dreams of every little guy by positing big ideals worth aspiring toward, like achievement and honor and equality. In doing, they polish the ideal of America itself. Yet there’s something curiously retrograde in the fact that a movie like Tillman’s must depend so heavily and formulaically on racism for its dramatic torque. One is tempted to imagine if that racial difference didn’t exist in the United States, Hollywood at this point might be inclined to invent it to provide simple, black-and-white battles rather than having to struggle with subtlety.
No doubt Brashear dealt with all sorts of superiors in his climb up the Navy ladder. So why not represent these people with a variety of characters? Having most of them “composited” into De Niro’s tough guy comes off, in effect, as an all-too-familiar sop to white audiences. It says, “Here you are, the ignorant but essentially good-hearted white guy who’s sure to be redeemed by the end of the story. In fact, you’re already forgiven for thinking that the story is really about you rather than the black guy, Carl what’s-his-name, who’s there to serve as the instrument of your self-affirmation.”
Such are the patronizing assumptions that Hollywood stokes and keeps in business while imagining that this form of pandering serves the cause of tolerance and understanding. Screenwriter Smith also invented a wife (Charlize Theron) for the invented Sunday, and the press notes quote him describing her as “a tough but vulnerable bombshell.” That phrase alone gives you the mental level at which most Hollywood movies–even ones like Men of Honor, with fascinating subjects and topnotch acting–are conceived and pitched these days. Most characters and dramatic ideas must ape clichés so rudimentary that they might’ve been spit out by a computer. “Tough but vulnerable bombshell,” like “determined black guy battling hard-ass white superior” comes from a world where no story element can be smarter than the dumbest producer, who naturally assumes that audiences won’t be half as bright as he is. In the culture trade, that’s known as a self-fulfulling prophecy.
As the little spacecraft struggles for lift-off, Val Kilmer, playing an astronaut desperate to escape into space, snarls, “This planet sucks!” He thinks he’s being macho and ironic, perhaps, but his bitter kiss-off gives us something else as well: a handy, three-word review of Red Planet.
Let me count the ways that Red Planet sucks? No, I think not. It would take all the money The Independent has allocated for ink and paper for the rest of the year. Suffice it to say that Hollywood now stands in a consummately embarrassing relationship with its own past. Thirty-three years ago–i.e., just about half the history of the sound film–Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, though it relied on technical and special-effects resources only a tiny fraction as sophisticated as those available today, still looks more truly “futuristic,” imaginative and technically adept than most sci-fi films of the past few years. But technology is only half of it. Like the very best literary sci-fi, 2001 had a philosophical purview that sought to encompass everything from mankind’s origins to the species’ ultimate destiny; it was, and is, an extraordinary feast of ideas.
In contrast to that banquet, Red Planet is half of a day-old hamburger dug out of a trash bin behind McDonald’s. Kilmer plays the leader of a Mars crew that gets stranded and killed off one by one, until he discovers a chance to escape back to Earth. That’s it. Ideas? Does anyone in Hollywood know the meaning of the word at this point? Truly, the one amazing thing about Red Planet is that the powers at a major studio (ironically, Warner Brothers, which released 2001) would spend something like $100 million and the very latest special effects on a project like this one without someone saying, “Hey, there’s nothing in this screenplay that’s even the least bit interesting or dramatically compelling.” Not only that, but they entrusted the whole package to Anthony Hoffman, a director of TV commercials whose press bio trumpets his “high-profile campaigns for blue chip companies including Nike, Nissan, American Airlines and AT&T.”
Blue chip? Kubrick wept.