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Men of Honor: Special Edition

Surely, any movie, but especially one that purports to chronicle actual events, owes a commitment to accuracy. But Men of Honor, starring Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr., is rife with errors: Suddenly there are mountains near Bayonne, New Jersey; the Boston Braves have become the Milwaukee Braves a year early; an old radio with vacuum tubes turns on immediately, just like a modern transistor radio; the Navy rank of Master Chief Petty Officer is invented six years early; and divers apparently "go under" for decompression after they come to the surface and remove their masks. Nit-picking? There is more — much more. But this is Hollywood, see, and what is almost always more important in a big commercial production is the emotion of the moment, rather than the facts of the case. Men of Honor is an inspirational movie, its message being simply, You can do it! Based on the life of Carl Brashear (Gooding), the film tells of the first African American Navy Diver and his tense but evolving relationship with his instructor, Billy Sunday (De Niro), a driven Southern alcoholic. Not only does Brashear, the son of sharecroppers, have to overcome the racism of the Navy, but later, after a freak accident, he has a second fight on his hands when he attempts to become the first disabled person to return to active service. Even though many of the events in the film are said to actually have happened, they come across as derived from other films: there is the mean commanding officer (Hal Holbrook) dwelling in his loft from which he issues cruel edicts, like James Cagney in Mr. Roberts. And there is the stoic relationship between instructor and determined student from An Officer and a Gentleman (David Keith even has a cameo in Men of Honor, yet another evocation of the earlier film). It's clear why De Niro chose to play this odd, selfish part: on the surface he's a dynamic, troubled, tough character who changes. And Gooding gets to play an inspirational emblem of survival (the wives, Charlize Theron and Aunjanue Ellis, are confined to the sidelines, alternately supportive and scolding). The great character actor Powers Boothe is barely used, while the embarrassing actor Michael Rapaport has a part that is thankfully underwritten or cut down. Director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food) handles all this poorly-thought-out fluff adequately, if conventionally. Men of Honor has a specific demographic, and unless you are a member of the film's very small target audience, or unless you are a sucker for military sentimentalism, then it's not hard to lose interest. Really, you can do it. Nonetheless, Fox's special-edition DVD release is quite a package if you do like the movie. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is flawless, with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. It's a movie that sticks mostly to hues of green and blue, but the limited palette works. There is an earnest commentary track with Gooding, director Tillman, scenarist Scott Marshall Smith (making his screen debut), and producer Robert Teitel. Also here is a selection of 12 deleted scenes with optional commentary, including an alternate ending (which is really an extension of the current ending in which, in a contrived moment, Sunday drowns while saving a kid in a river). Also with commentary is an animated storyboard for a complete scene concerning the locating of a missing bomb. Short features include The Making of Men of Honor and the hagiographic Master Chief: A Tribute to Carl Brashear, which are really two parts of the same "making-of" doc. Music video for the song "Win," promo spot for the soundtrack CD, two trailers, two TV spots. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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