Men Of Honor

Men Of Honor (2000)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Robert De Niro, Cuba Gooding Jr., Charlize Theron
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Animatic Storyboard, Music Video, Music Promo, Theatrical Trailers, TV Spots

It’s becoming clearer to me that constructing a successful theatrical trailer is a real art — and a dying one at that. Too often these two minute snapshots either reveal every last plot point in a movie or focus so much on the stars that the story the film is trying to tell is completely overshadowed. When I saw the trailers for "Men of Honor" I was torn. On the one hand, the subject matter seemed to be something that would appeal to me and the short clips of the dive scenes looked to be exciting and well executed. But the trailer preferred to focus on extreme close-ups of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro emoting and the whole film seemed more like a television movie of the week rather than a compelling theatrical experience. In the end, I decided to pass on seeing "Men of Honor" in the theaters so watching this DVD was my first experience with the movie. In hindsight, I should have gone with my first instinct, ignored the trailer, and dragged myself to the nearest theater to catch this surprisingly moving film on the big screen.

"Men of Honor" tells the true story of Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a sharecropper’s son who is forced to leave school at an early age to help support his family. Convinced that this life just isn’t good enough for his son, Carl’s father, Mac (Carl Lumbly), encourages him to enlist in the Navy as a way out of the crop fields.
From his first day in uniform, Brashear is met with both overt racism and the more insidious institutional bigotry systemic throughout America in 1948. But his father had instilled in him a fierce sense of pride and determination and, after his first glimpse of a Navy deep sea diver, Carl decides that he will do whatever it takes to join that elite group.

After several years of his constant requests for transfer being denied, Brashear is at last accepted into the Navy’s diver training program. Upon reporting for duty to Bayonne, New Jersey, Carl comes face to face with the diver who first inspired and will now train him — Chief Master Diver Leslie W. "Billy" Sunday (Robert De Niro). But racism is rampant even among these elite and Carl must hold his own against his fellow trainees, Master Chief Sunday, and even the base commander who is out to sabotage his training at every available opportunity.

In the end, Master Chief Sunday comes to grudgingly respect the fierce determination that Brashear displays and, contrary to the orders of his CO, passes him after an excruciating final exam. Carl goes on to become a senior diver and, in the film’s most exciting sequence, must recover a nuclear bomb dropped into the Mediterranean Sea by a wounded B-52. During this daring mission, Brashear comes to the rescue of his fellow divers and suffers a serious injury as a result of his heroic actions. What follows is a slow recovery against long odds with help from unexpected friends.

The story itself is one that could have easily degenerated into a saccharine, predictable mess as Hollywood too often takes a moving, real-life story and completely ruins it with over-dramatization. But all involved in "Men of Honor" show remarkable restraint and the result is a heartfelt, moving drama filled with believable characters. As an aside, fans of "An Officer and a Gentleman" will find the relationship between Brashear and Sunday to be immediately familiar with the Richard Gere and Louis Gossett Jr. roles being filled by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro respectively.

Cuba Gooding Jr. delivers as fine a performance as I’ve seen from him and imbues the character of Carl Brashear with a quiet determination. Robert De Niro is surprisingly restrained in his role as Master Chief Billy Sunday which lends an air of credibility to what is in actuality a fictional composite character devised for the movie. Fine performances are also turned in by Michael Rapaport, David Keith, Powers Boothe, Hal Holbrook, and Charlize Theron — who seems to be in every single movie these days.

"Men of Honor" is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> preserving the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the original theatrical release. The image has a slightly soft cast to it but this is something I noticed in the trailer as well so I’m guessing that it was the director’s intent to shoot it that way. Unfortunately, it appears that those who authored the DVD have tried to remedy this "flaw" by using a little edge enhancement. It isn’t terribly distracting but I was surprised to see it on a newer Fox release. Contrast and black level are both accurate and even the darkest underwater scenes display fine detail. Colors are quite natural as well and the palette used conveys the ever present dampness and cold of the deep sea diver’s world. All in all it’s a fairly solid transfer.

Audio comes in English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 and 2.0 Surround mixes as well as a French-dubbed 2.0 track. The 5.1 soundtrack is very well-balanced with a sweeping score, at time thunderous sound effects, and crystal clear dialogue all getting their equal due. The surround channels are used to great effect in the many underwater scenes and the LFE comes to life as well with some nice, deep bass. The 2.0 Surround track is quite good as well although the lack of discrete surrounds is immediately apparent in the action sequences.

Touted as a Special Edition, the "Men of Honor" DVD offers up some nice bonus features. First up is a running commentary with director George Tillman Jr., producer Robert Teitel, screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith, and actor Cuba Gooding Jr. Having all four men participate in the discussion really helps to flesh out the film. While the director and producer provide information on the nuts and bolts of making the movie, the screenwriter discusses how the story of the real Carl Brashear has been adapted for the screen and Cuba Gooding Jr. offers up his more general thoughts on the actors and characters they portray.

Next up are twelve deleted scenes — including an alternate ending — that can be played individually or in order. All can be viewed with or without the director’s commentary and tend to focus on further development of the main characters.

The DVD also includes two short featurettes. "The Making of Men of Honor" is a thirteen minute promotional piece that manages to reveal some interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits. "A Tribute to Carl Brashear" is a seven minute interview with the real Carl Brashear. I would have liked to see and hear more about the actual man behind this moving story as this short interview is very superficial.

A short animatic storyboard of the bomb recovery scene is also provided — revealing the CGI used in the scene — and can be watched with either the director’s commentary or an early sound mix.

The music video for Brian McKnight’s "Win" is also presented along with a short promotional piece for the movie’s soundtrack. Rounding out the extras are two theatrical trailers in non-<$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and two TV spots.

"Men of Honor" is a film that tells a very straightforward story and tries its best to avoid using the easy cliches that one would expect to find in a movie about the triumph of the human will over insurmountable odds. The DVD itself is another stellar effort from the folks at Fox and, while I had one minor quibble with the video, the disc was technically sound. The inclusion of a handful of decent bonus features is a definite plus and I can certainly give the DVD, and the film itself, a solid recommendation.