There are times when less would not be more, when it would just be regrettably ... less. Umberto Eco has argued, for example, that Casablanca works because it evokes every convention of the romantic-adventure genre. If it had missed even one or two of them, he suggests, it would have been just another forgettably routine wartime movie.
That idea applies neatly to Men of Honor. It is one of those dramas of peacetime military service in which a determined individual attains what he wants — in this case, master-chief rank and to be a master diver in the U.S. Navy — and in the process surmounts his own shortcomings and the completely predictable prejudice and near deadly hostility of the brass.
Inspired (a word that is bound to make realists queasy) by the real-life story of a man named Carl Brashear, who is played by Cuba Gooding Jr., the film is feverish in its desire to reduce his experiences to a compendium of cliches. Carl is, to begin with, the son of a black sharecropper. He joins the Navy in 1948, when the military is officially desegregated yet still confines men of his race to the galley. But he sees Navy divers being heroic and decides to join their ranks.
Diving school is commanded by a god-like lunatic (Hal Holbrook) who never leaves his tower office but knows what he hates, which is a black man striving for elite status. All but one of Carl's barracks mates move out rather than sleep in the same room with him. Day-to-day training is under the command of Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), a drunken, brawling redneck who, if he can't drive Carl out of school, would just as soon kill him.
But that's just the beginning. In need of help with his book learning, Carl wins the support of the dubious local librarian (an appealing Aunjanue Ellis). Can love and marriage be far behind? Not in this movie. Will Carl attain his goal and Billy's reluctant respect? Why are we bothering to ask?
A certain novelty arises when Carl's leg is shattered in an accident. The Navy wants him to retire. Instead he orders the leg amputated, thinking a prosthesis will be less of a handicap to him on duty. We may never have seen courage expressed in quite that way, but it's also an excuse to bring a sobered-up Billy back to help Carl prove to a review board that he can return to active service. This, naturally, he does, presumably with the thanks of a grateful nation.
By now, you would think that even a nation with the U.S.'s uncanny taste for inspirational improbability might be fed up with Men of Honor. But that may not be so. There's something refreshing about its utterly unembarrassed embrace of the familiar. The director, George Tillman Jr., either doesn't notice or doesn't give a hoot about the way Scott Marshall Smith's script piles up cliches. He just keeps driving his movie right on through them. What's true of him is true of his actors too. De Niro pitches his performance on the edge of psychopathy, where menace and comedy very effectively coexist. But it is Gooding who does the most to redeem the movie, tempering his determination with a patient sweetness and casually stated masculine conviction that's thoroughly winning. To borrow a phrase, "Here's looking at you, kid."