De Niro and Gooding in Men of Honor: Hollywood Panders Yet Again

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



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 Brashear’s 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 hard-bitten father (Carl Lumbly) urges him never to look back. In the
Navy, Brashear is consigned with other blacks to the galleys. 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, NJ.


Sunday, the
school’s chief instructor, is a former diver who injured himself in an
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 so 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 that if that racial
difference didn’t exist in the U.S., 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 cliches so rudimentary that they might’ve
been spit out by 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.



 


You Can Count
on Me
directed
by Kenneth Lonergan



Last year at
Sundance the New York-originated indie You Can Count on Me was a big
word-of-mouth favorite, and now I see why. Kenneth Lonergan’s naturalistic
small-town comedy tries to grapple with the knots in average people’s lives,
and for the most part it does so with refreshing skill and noncondescending
wit. Set in upstate New York, the film centers on Sammy (Laura Linney), a bank
employee who’s saddled with a new boss (Matthew Broderick) so stuck on
duty that he won’t even allow her 15 minutes a day to pick up her young
son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Though only eight, Rudy too is a bit of a worrywart;
allowed by a teacher to write about anything he wants, he complains the assignment
is "unstructured."


Into Sammy’s
life at this problematic moment comes her long-unseen younger brother, Terry
(Mark Ruffalo), a ruffled, saturnine roustabout who’s been in jail in Florida
and now seems like he’s ready for a bit of family solidity, no matter how
provisional or temporary. Naturally, Sammy would like Terry, potsmoking fuckup
that he is, to serve Rudy as a pal and male role model, but what feels both
surprising and exactly right about the story is that her brother’s return
allows Sammy to start acting out: she commences an ill-advised affair with her
jerk of a boss, as if daring Terry not to be the safety net she’ll
need when she falls. Orphaned as kids when their parents were killed in a car
crash, the siblings are still trying to make sure that they can, yep, count
on each other.


Television-style
patness and superficiality are the prime pitfalls of a film like this, and You
Can Count on Me
doesn’t entirely escape. There are scenes, such as
the one in which Terry and Sammy talk in a restaurant on their first meeting,
where the acting is too "actorly," the writing and direction a bit
forced and obvious. But generally, Lonergan creates a world where both his performers
and the characters they play are able to etch out small, everyday truths that
belong to the actual difficulties of life rather than the dictates of anyone’s
screenwriting software. These days, that kind of humane, insightful originality
is rare enough to celebrate.



 


Reeling


This
dim season’s two worst movies so far are Neal LaBute’s Nurse Betty
and Joe Berlinger’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. I measure
awfulness not by any kind of theoretical rockbottom of utter dreadfulness, but
against the promise formerly exhibited by the films’ makers. In the case
of both of these crappy and punishingly banal Hollywood movies, we have former
Sundance heroes whose foreheads should now be branded "SELLOUT." Or
worse yet, "unsuccessful SELLOUT."



Blair Witch
2
–which should be titled Scream 4–is the rottener by a
considerable margin. The original Blair Witch Project was such a stunning
micro-budgeter because it did something no horror film had dared to do in decades:
trust in the viewer’s imagination. Besides ingeniously reviving a genre,
the 16-mm- and camcorder-shot film constructed a fascinating, Hawthornesque
fable about the uneasy relationship between current technology (and the people
bound to it) and nature, while also discovering symbolic expressive uses in
the clash of film and video.


The thing that
stands out about BW2 is the amount of self-delusion that must have been
invested by every key participant at every stage. In electing to trash the original
film’s virtues and turn out just another of the stupid, flashy, nonscary
teen "horror" pics to which BW1 was such a stellar alternative,
the team behind the new film must’ve thought they were furthering the value
of what could be a very respectable and lucrative franchise. I wonder what they
think now that Blair Witch is synonymous with "fuggitaboutit."
The original’s creators, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, executive-produced
here, so they deserve part of the blame, as do the honchos at Artisan Entertainment.
But a goodly share must also go to former documentarian Berlinger (Brother’s
Keeper
), who with this stupefying dreck does to his reputation something
that’s too gruesome for any horror flick.


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