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At the Movies

Opening eyes: Films take on racism, family


Men of Honor promises to be a popular action movie celebrating male courage, in this case that of Carl Brashear, the first African-American Navy diver. Though in many ways a formula picture, it’s directed with slick professionalism by George Tillman Jr. and brought to vigorous life by Cuba Gooding Jr. as the stubbornly likable hero and Robert DeNiro as Master Chief Billy Sunday, the hot-tempered, abrasive head of the diver training school in the early 1950s.

The underwater diving scenes, though sometimes hard to follow, earn a high degree of audience involvement. But the film’s most instructive lesson is that the racism against which Brashear had to struggle -- all but one of the enlisted men at the Bayonne, N.J., training school refused to share the barracks with him -- was routine less than 50 years ago.

The opening is both engaging and appropriate. As a boy coming home from school, Carl dives into the river near his home with all his clothes on; we see the sheer joy on his face as he swims underwater. Next we observe his father’s quiet dignity as he urges the boy to follow his dream of a Navy career and escape the backbreaking labor of tenant farming.

At first, racial restrictions limit Brashear’s naval service to the kitchen, but greater opportunities open up after he shows his prowess as a swimmer. Though Gooding makes Brashear’s patient stoicism and later heroism credible, the plot development is too predictable. Brashear never becomes embittered or weakens in his commitment to be a Navy diver, and Sunday is relentless in humiliating the recruits -- especially Brashear -- until the latter’s persistence and courage lead Sunday to countermand the order of the almost pathological base commander (Hal Holbrook) not to let a Negro pass the course. It’s too bad that the Brashear/Sunday relationship wasn’t further developed to make the central conflict richer. Both men come from sharecropper families, and Sunday’s alcoholism and resentment of authority offer a dramatic contrast with the hero’s self-discipline.

Brashear’s romance with a medical student named Jo (Aaunjaune Ellis) is presented in overly idyllic terms, and the last third of the movie, after Brashear passes a final test to become a Navy diver, seems to drag. “Men of Honor” trades on our residual patriotism, but the ending, framed as a trial before Navy bureaucrats, seems especially contrived.

Characterization is more complex in You Can Count on Me, winner of the top prize at this year’s Sundance Festival, and set in Scottsville, a small, non-glamorous, fictional town in upstate New York. Kenneth Lonergan’s script, combining a sense of low-key comedy with a keen awareness of life’s imperfections, centers on a brother and sister who have taken very different paths after losing their parents when they were young.

Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney) is a single mother who works as a loan officer in a bank and lives with her 8-year-old son Rudy (Rory Culkin) in the house where she grew up. Linney makes Sammy both attractive and intelligent, yet there is a buried desperation about her efforts to bring the various threads of her life together. When her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) comes for a visit, primarily to borrow money and get away from some immediate problems, Sammy is delighted to see him but is soon dismayed at his lack of direction. Although glad to have Terry stay for a while and pick up Rudy after school -- Brian, the new bank manager (Matthew Broderick) resents her taking 15 minutes to do it herself during office hours -- she is shocked that he has left a pregnant girlfriend behind in Worcester, Mass., and that he thinks of his future only in vague terms about going West to look for a job.

However irresponsible, Terry is also shown to be good-hearted and vulnerable, and Ruffalo’s performance will surely win him starring roles. For his part, Terry, aware of Sammy’s own independent streak, is disappointed that his sister has stayed in Scottsville, “where nothing ever happens.” As for the boy Rudy, Culkin hardly seems to be acting, combining cautious observation and an obvious fascination with his rebellious uncle who takes him out at night to the local pool hall.

It is Sammy’s story, however, that is central. She perhaps doesn’t understand any better than the unprepared audience why she has initiated an affair with the prissy (and married) bank manager. She goes to see her parish priest, admitting she had been brought up to believe that adultery was the road to hell. Although the priest seems somewhat unsure of himself, he shows genuine concern and avoids formula condemnations. When later he drops in on Terry, the latter is resentful at first, but the priest makes it clear he is not out to make converts. Instead, he challenges Terry, asking him if his life has any meaning.

What makes “You Can Count on Me” a superior film for adults, apart from the remarkable work of its three main performers, is that it doesn’t tie everything up neatly. Neither Sammy nor Terry nor Rudy has answers -- and neither does the priest.

We recall the image, near the opening of the movie, of brother and sister clinging to each other in shock during the funeral service for their parents. What the movie demonstrates is that, despite everything, the sibling bond between them is strong and genuine.

The most beautiful recent movie is Iranian, A Time for Drunken Horses, although the lives of its characters are bleak and dangerous. First-time director Bahman Ghobadi is no mere aesthete. Dedicating the film to his fellow Kurds, and using non-professional actors from the mountainous area of Iran near the Iraqi border, he has found beauty in the rugged scenery, the thin lines of trees against the snow, and above all in the tender relationships of the five children at the center of his story.

The children have been orphaned by a land mine, and Ayoub, a wiry, agile boy of perhaps 11, takes on the responsibilities of a father. Ayoub is desperate to raise money for a needed operation for his severely handicapped brother, Madi, but the only jobs in his village are with dangerous smuggling expeditions to Iraq.

Those who have seen recent Iranian movies like Abbas Kiarostami’s “And Life Goes On,” Jafar Panahi’s “White Balloon,” and Majid Majidi’s “Color of Paradise” know what wonders these directors can elicit from child actors. “A Time for Drunken Horses” is equally marvelous and unsentimental. Ghobadi’s deliberately slow-moving film is a demanding experience, but there are adequate rewards for all its rigors: watching the children care for the fragile Madi; the delight of Ayoub’s younger sister Amaneh when he brings her an exercise book in which to do her homework; and the reconciliation between them after he had slapped her when he was afraid that Madi would miss getting his injection.

The film’s title comes from the smugglers’ practice of pouring alcohol into the water their animals drink before setting out on a journey during freezing weather. The scene in which we observe the result, with horses and mules losing their footing in the snow, is truly terrifying.

If movies are accepted as more than mindless entertainment, “A Time for Drunken Horses” will be recognized as a rare resource, a magnificent tribute to a people whose lives find no recognition in Western media. It is sad that the audience for foreign films has declined at the very time when countries that previously made few movies are producing work that could open our eyes and minds.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000