The son of a Kentucky sharecropper, Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.) becomes the first African-American to become a master diver for the Navy in Men of Honor, a rah-rah reality-based movie that looks like it was made by the Navy. Even though the institutional racism impeding Carl’s rise is amply noted, we’re never in doubt that the innate goodness of the country will prevail.
Brashear enters the Navy just as President Truman has desegregated the armed forces, but he still finds himself relegated to the kitchen. His swimming skills convince him he can make it as a diver, but the Navy Salvage School in New Jersey, under its head trainer, Master Chief Diver Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), does everything it can to keep things lily-white: Carl’s fellow trainees, with one exception, a stuttering good guy played by Michael Rapaport, refuse to bunk with him, and leave him threatening notes; he’s assigned ridiculously difficult tasks, which he indomitably completes. Predictably, the crackers in his class develop a grudging respect for Carl. So does Billy, whose hazing tactics come close to ending the young man’s life a few times. The only real holdout is the school’s dotty, ultraracist commander (Hal Holbrook), who, in a nice touch, is shown polishing his military medals by rubbing them with booze.
The testimonial-like tone of this movie, which was directed by George Tillman Jr. and written by Scott Marshall Smith, undercuts its supposed realism. Heroism in the movies – at least heroism based on actual events – is always at its most believable when the hero in question is something less than a saint. Because of the racism he had to counteract, Carl’s single-mindedness is portrayed as the highest valor. No quitter he. When a naval accident mangles his leg, he simply orders it sawed off and becomes the first amputee to return to active duty.
If the filmmakers had bothered to delve into the monomania of such a man and dropped the inspirationalism, they might have made a truly disturbing movie instead of a glorified recruitment poster. The sort of man who, against all military advice, would voluntarily have his leg amputated in order to qualify as master diver is, I would say, a questionable role model. But because Carl’s ambition is placed in a racial context, his life choices are never seriously challenged by the filmmakers. The all-white military brass who go against his decision to amputate and return to duty are portrayed for the most part as craven and corrupt, even though their concerns about his safety seem eminently reasonable. Carl’s wife’s concerns seem more than reasonable, too, but we know that it’s only a matter of time before Carl, in a military courtroom, silences his detractors by hauling himself for twelve heavy paces inside a diving suit weighing almost 300 pounds while balancing on his one good leg as his wife and young son’s eyes brim with devotional tears.
I’m not sure why movies, specifically in the racial realm, are once again proffering civics-lesson heroes in a way they haven’t since the heyday of Sidney Poitier. Is it because the heroes in our political life are so unheroic? Just last month we had Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans playing the first black coach of a previously all-white high-school football squad replete with racists. That story was also based on real events, but like Men of Honor, it didn’t do justice to the fanaticism of its hero, or the rage that must have burned just beneath the surface.
However uplifting these stories are designed to be, they don’t draw out the artistry of the performers involved, who are required to dampen their dramatic power for a higher good. Cuba Gooding Jr., who can be rousingly freewheeling, is encased in righteous intentions in Men of Honor, and those intentions weigh him down more than any diving gear. Robert De Niro, in a role that reportedly is a composite of Carl’s several real-life tormentors, keeps a lid on his talent, too. Despite some Cape Fear-style glowering, there is never any doubt that deep down, this corn-cob-pipe-smoking martinet is a decent sort. The people involved in this movie are using high principles as a bailout for low inspiration.
Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo play sister and brother in the affectingly small-scale You Can Count On Me, and although they don’t look at all alike, their kinship is never an issue for us. These actors express the feints and parries of siblings when they’re together. They have an intuitive understanding of how much to conceal and how much to reveal to each other; it’s one of the most convincing displays of family connection I’ve ever seen in a movie.
What seems at first like a clear-cut contrast between these two – she’s small-town provincial, he’s self-destructively nomadic – becomes less contrasty as the film plays out. Linney’s Sammy, a single mother whose 8-year-old son Rudy (Rory Culkin) she overprotects, gets a little loose when her estranged brother Terry shows up in town asking for a handout. Her patrician veneer falls away and she has a dalliance with her married, by-the-book bank-manager boss (Matthew Broderick, in a sweetly dazed performance). Terry, who looks like he’s spent one night too many in a sleeping bag, warms to Rudy, taking him fishing and to pool halls. Against his instincts, he becomes something of a watchdog for the boy. Sammy and Terry were orphaned early when their parents were killed in a car accident, and as adults, they still seem orphaned, bereft. Kenneth Lonergan, making his feature-film debut as both writer and director, works in small brushstrokes; nothing is really resolved in these characters’ lives.
This freedom from any kind of grand resolution must have been like manna for the actors. Linney has never been better, and Ruffalo, who once performed Off Broadway in the Lonergan play This Is Our Youth, keeps the mushiness at bay when it would have been easy to sentimentalize Terry’s attachment to his nephew and sister. Terry isn’t a lovable layabout; he causes harm, and when it suits him to move on, he doesn’t stick around. Ruffalo gets at not only the scruffiness of the wanderer’s existence but also its crazy-making isolation. His performance is so richly layered that when the film is over, you feel that Terry lives on – that he could go anywhere, become anything or nothing, and we would be prepared for it.