James Forest has written: "The most remarkable miracle is not the transformation of water into wine; it is the transformation of an enemy into a friend." Just how that works out in the lives of a zealous African American and a bigoted Navy lifer is at the core of this intense drama directed by George Tillman, Jr. Inspired by the life of Carl Brashear, the screenplay by Scott Marshall Smith examines the ardor of a man whose pursuit of a calling becomes nothing less than a consuming passion.
When young Carl is growing up in Kentucky as the son of a poor sharecropper, his beleaguered father tells him: "Never quit . . . be the best." These words are chiseled into the consciousness of the young man. They become a mantra that holds him together in the most daunting circumstances. Carl (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) starts out in the Navy as a cook along with all the other African Americans. He's made a deck seaman after proving his prowess as a swimmer. After watching Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), a legendary Master Chief Navy Diver in action, he realizes that this is his goal. Two years later after hundreds of letters of application, Carl is admitted as the first African American in the Navy Diving School. Sunday, who has been demoted, is the head trainer. Asked why he wants to become a Navy Diver so badly, Carl responds: "Because they said I couldn't have it."
In training, he is treated poorly by his fellow classmates, tormented by the bigoted Sunday, and hated by Pappy (Hal Holbrook), the commanding officer of the Navy Diving School who is determined to keep blacks out of the profession. His major support is his Gwen (Aunjanue Ellis), the woman he falls in love with and later marries.
The most interesting dimension of this military drama is the clash between Carl and Billy Sunday who says of his evangelist namesake: "He worked for God and I am God!" The two men are both outsiders animated by a defiant spirit and incredible determination. The last segment of Men of Honor deals with the surprising events that bring these sworn enemies together with Sunday serving as Carl's ally in the biggest battle of his life.