Carl Brashear grows up the son of sharecroppers (Carl Lumbly and Lonette McKee) in
. His father wants to make sure that Carl makes something of himself. He comes of age just after World War II has ended and the military has been desegregated. Carl joins the U.S. Navy, but ends up doing nothing more than peeling potatoes on a ship. As another man tells him, the only roles for blacks in the Navy are cooks or officers’ stewards. Kentucky
One day Carl is hot and jumps in the whites-only pool. Men jump in to grab him, but he outswims them all. The Captain is impressed with his ability in the water and transfers Carl to Search and Rescue. Carl witnesses an amazing rescue by Navy Master Diver Billy Sunday (Deniro). Sunday disobeys orders and safety protocols to effect the rescue and as a result he will no longer be able to dive. Carl is inspired by this rescue and decides he is going to become a Navy diver, too.
A couple years go by and Carl finally arrives at diving school. He finds that Sunday is the instructor there. At first Carl tries to draw parallels between the two, but Sunday has more than a little red in his neck and wants nothing to do with a black man becoming a diver. He gives Carl a really miserable time.
Carl finds he can do the physical stuff, but his seventh grade education just isn’t keeping up with the others academically. He tries to study on his own and runs into a woman (Aunjanue Ellis) also studying. He convinces her to help him and a romance blossoms.
Meanwhile Carl also runs into Gwen Sunday (Theron), Billy’s young wife. She invites him to the club the other diving school candidates are at, which is also where her husband hangs out. A challenge ensues, with Carl winning, but Sunday still doesn’t cut him any slack. Final exams arrive and Carl has achieved enough success that all he has to do is complete the exam, no matter how long it takes him, and he will pass.
Sunday is ordered to sabotage the final exam by the commander of the school (Hal Holbrook). He does, albeit a little reluctantly. Carl manages to complete an agonizing 9+ hours under cold water in order to finish the exam. Sunday declares that Carl passed.
This is only the latest in a string of events where Sunday has disobeyed orders, or otherwise gotten himself in trouble. During the course of the film we see his career decline at the same time Carl’s is rising. Many years later Sunday witnesses an attempt to retrieve a hydrogen bomb from the ocean floor and realizes that Carl is one of the divers. Sunday beats up another man who makes racist comments about Carl. In a case of coming full circle, Sunday is inspired by Carl to get his life back on track. He joins forces with Carl to fight yet another fight for Carl to get an opportunity after a major event happens.
The movie tells us what happened to Carl Brashear after the film ends. The real Brashear even made a cameo as one of the patrons of a nightclub earlier in the film. One thing the 2000 film couldn’t tell us was that in 2009 the U.S. Navy commissioned the USNS Carl Brashear to honor the man who had died three years before. If you watch the deleted scenes on the DVD, you will also see what happened to Billy Sunday. The filmmakers apparently decided to cut the scene since it was Carl’s movie, not Sunday’s.
If you hate the inspirational biography genre then this film will probably not change your mind about it. It’s your standard story of drive and determination overcoming obstacles. What makes it worth watching are the performances from both Gooding, Jr. and Deniro. I recommend that you give this film a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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