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|February 1, 2001||
Oscar versus Oscar
Men of Honour's main paisa-vasool is watching two great actors fight it out onscreen for yet another nomination!
Hollywood has a way of taking a true story and somehow making it look just like a dozen other fictional Hollywood stories.
Here's how it applies to Men of Honour.
Men of Honour is based on the true story of Carl Brashear, the first African American and also the first amputee US Navy Diver.
It follows in the tradition of films like the recent Hurricane (starring Denzel Washington), the less-recent Malcolm X, and the much-older Glory (starring Morgan Freeman) that attempts to pay tribute to the contribution of African Americans in their country's history.
For decades Hollywood's blatant racism let to African Americans (and Asian Americans) being relegated to menial roles in movies, or as in the case of hundreds of Western films, cut out altogether.
Films like Men of Honour do more than correct than imbalance, they show us the great struggle and sacrifice of coloured people in America to rise above the limitations of colour and creed.
The casting is the first good thing about the film.
Cuba Gooding Jr's Best Supporting Oscar for his 'show me the money' part in Jerry Maguire was no fluke. His roles in As Good As It Gets and What Dreams May Come reconfirmed his talent as a solid actor who brings sincerity and heart to his roles.
He is perfectly cast as Brashear, and the advertising hype that claims this film is 'the first Oscar contender of the year' might not be wrong.
Robert De Niro's stature as a great actor doesn't even need to be laboured.
What's amazing is that this is the same actor whose other release, Meet The Parents, was riding the Top Ten at the same time as Men of Honour. Watch both films in the space of a few days, as I did, and you'll see why De Niro is considered one of the greatest living actors by his colleagues, including apna desi Amitabh Bachchan.
De Niro plays the drill sergeant who makes Brashear's training a living hell. Coming so soon after his Meet The Parents role where he makes his future son-in-law's life a living hell, it almost makes that part look like a spoof of Men of Honour!
He steps into the shoes of a great line of drill sergeants harrying leading men, from Tom Selleck in Top Gun, Clint Eastwood in Breakheart Pass, Richard Gere's nemesis in An Officer and a Gentleman, Demi Moore's abusive superior in GI Jane, and many more.
This first half of the film is predictable enough in a Hollywood way: Young recruit determined to succeed in a rigorously demanding vocation is opposed by an overbearing superior officer.
Rather than focus on racism alone, the film does well to portray this as an ideological and ego clash. These two bulls are doomed to butt heads until one passes out.
That's where the film takes a surprising turn, with De Niro coming over to Gooding's side and deciding to support the recruit in his honourable struggle. The way De Niro is able to retain his character's integrity while changing sides is once again proof of his exceptional mastery of acting.
He is the film, to a large extent, and even the incongruous casting of the beautiful young Charlize Theron as his unlikely wife seems utterly plausible in an anything's-possible-with-this-guy sort of way.
At the end, the film leaves you with the expected chest-thumping pride and sense of triumph against odds that films of this genre aim for. This is a good thing.
What's less than good is the way the film resorts to classic Hollywood button-pushing to win your sympathies. The ending is almost like Top Gun in its gung-ho 'hero who dares all, wins all' forcefulness.
So while you enjoy and appreciate the struggle of Carl Brashear while it's happening on screen, and even have a lump in your throat and tear in your eye when he finally achieves his impossible dream, there's a nagging sense that you've been superbly manipulated by those masters of movie magic once again.
A feeling that's quite acceptable in a fictional film, but seems a little unfair in a 'true story' biopic.
On the other hand, if Scott Marshall Smith's script and George Tillman's direction hadn't pushed reality a bit over the top in pucca Hollywood style, maybe the film would have been more realistic but less engrossing. And less profit-grossing too!
On the whole, this is worth watching for the two great performances alone.
It's a treat to watch two fantastic actors go head-to-head like two raging bulls. Lovers of military movies will not want to miss this one for anything in the world. And even if you aren't into macho military clashes or a fan of either star, it's still a watchable human drama.
And let's not forget, a true story.
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