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


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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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