When Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a young black sailor in the 1950s, sees Master Diver Billy Sunday (Robert DeNiro) defy a superior officer to save the life of a drowning comrade, he realises what he was born to do. Little does he know the series of obstacles the Navy and life itself will throw in his way, or that he's chosen for his hero a racist, profane drunk. Brashear's stirring story makes for good drama, despite a sometimes uneven film.
Brashear joins the Navy with his sharecropper dad's mandate ringing in his ears: don't quit on me, and don't come home. Quickly he learns that a black man can only be a cook or valet. After writing over 100 letters and waiting two years, Brashear finally becomes the first African-American admitted to diver training school.
That's only the first step: he must then overcome threats of drowning, the limitations of a seventh grade education and sabotage by his classmates and trainers. The racism pervades everything - these men can't imagine how Brashear could possibly fit into their world as an equal.
Director George Tillman Jr. interweaves suspenseful action sequences with fast-paced dialogue and humour, often tied to Sunday's creative insults. These scenes, combined with the brilliance of DeNiro's performance, make it worthwhile to sit through several emotionally overwrought moments and too-pretty speeches as the film occasionally staggers under the weight of its own importance.
The force of Sunday's personality sweeps you through the story line, and is met with equal vigour by Brashear's determination to succeed. DeNiro definitely has the meatier role. Brashear has only one personality trait, perseverance, giving Gooding little to work with.
Likewise, we're given little insight into the contradictions of Brashear's up-and-down relationship with his former tutor and wife Jo (Aunjanue Ellis). Theron provides little more than ambience, but of course, she's such gorgeous window-dressing.
Just when you think the story's over, Brashear has to prove himself one more time. Even as the chemistry between Sunday and Brashear deepens, the melodrama becomes more stilted and predictable. Writer Scott Marshall Smith settles for a simplistic notion that the racism endemic to the Navy now is focused in one man, Lt. Hanks (David Conrad). Again, Sunday's character rescues us from the mundane, and delivers a terrific courtroom climax.