Carl Brashear, Jr. was the first black man to achieve the rank of Master Diver in the Navy. He was also the first amputee to be returned to active duty in the armed services. In this movie, produced by Bill Cosby, Brashear gets the kind of respectful, go-for-the-Oscar® treatment that reached its zenith in the 1960’s. Everyone tries very hard, but the story is old-fashioned and predictable — even down to the marriage proposal that melts the girl’s heart and the courtroom climax. The real problem is that the characters are so one-dimensional, the good guys so good and the bad guys so bad, that it has the feel of an after-school special.
This is the kind of movie that begins with one character being transported by MPs and then goes into a flashback of a little black boy running through the woods and diving into the water. It has big-serious-movie cinematography, with every autumn leaf perfectly outlined against every cloudless sky and diving gear that looks like burnished armour in its grandeur.
Brashear’s saintly sharecropper parents (Carl Lumbly and the woefully underused Lonette McKee) urge him to get as far away as possible and not come back for a long time. He has to quit school in 7th grade to help out at home, but when he grows up (played as an adult by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) he enlists in the Navy. The armed services have just been desegregated, and he has hopes for new opportunities.
It turns out that desegregation is more theoretical than real, and he is relegated to one of the few positions open to blacks — kitchen duty on board an escort carrier. When the ship’s captain discovers what a strong, fast swimmer he is, he is promoted to the search and rescue team, though he still has to bunk with the stewards. He dreams of becoming a master diver, one of the men who go on the most dangerous underwater missions. He sends over 100 letters of application before being accepted. Then, when he gets to the training facility, first they won’t let him on the base and then all of the white sailors but one refuse to stay in the barracks with him.
Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro) a master diver grounded due to an embolism, is in charge of diver training. He is a profane, angry, alcoholic, racist, abusive guy who, deep down inside, has more integrity than all those pretty-boy officers put together blah blah. Sunday begins by mentioning his namesake, the famous evangelist, explaining that “the only difference between me and that old preacher is that he worked for God and I am God.” He throws every possible obstacle in Brashear’s way, and even gives a medal Brashear earned to another sailor. But Brashear, true to his father’s orders, never gives up. He gets help from a pretty med student named Jo (Aunjanue Ellis) on the academic side, and relies on his own natural talent and determination to pass the performance tests. Despite the orders of Mr. Pappy, the commanding officer (Hal Holbrook), that no black sailor graduate, Brashear makes it. Then Brashear’s star is on the rise. And Sunday’s begins to fall.
Ultimately, Brashear marries the pretty doctor and becomes a star diver. But he loses a leg and the command wants him to retire. Sunday re-appears to help him prove that he can return to active duty.
The story is a stirring one. De Niro, Gooding, Charlize Theron (as Sunday’s beautiful, well-bred, but unhappy and alcoholic wife), Michael Rapaport (as Brashear’s one friend), and Holbrook all do their best, but the script does not give them enough to work with and the result is that movie feels simultaneously overstuffed and empty. Brashear candidly discusses his alcohol abuse problem in his book, but in the movie other than being an absent husband and father he is portrayed as just about perfect.
I couldn’t help thinking about the recent Spike Lee movie, “Bamboozled.” The need to make the fictional Brashear so idealized echoes Lee’s concerns about the minstrel show aspect of popular culture, making a real story less real to make it more entertaining. It would show more respect for both Brashear and the audience to let us see a character with more depth and complexity. It is especially disappointing that the story is so simplified that it should be suitable for kids, but it has strong profanity, earning it an R rating.
I could not help being very curious, too, about Jo Brashear. A black woman doctor in the early 60’s must have a story that is at least as interesting as this one. But we get no sense of what went into her life choices or how she handled her challenges. In real life, the marriage did not survive. But in the movie, she shows up at the crucial moment to provide love and support.
Parents should know that the R rating is primarily based on salty Navy language, including racist comments. Characters are in peril and one is badly injured. There are some sexual references. Characters have alcohol problems and one is shown in rehab.
Families who see this movie should talk about what motivates the characters. Brashear is asked why he wants to be a diver and he says, “Because they said I couldn’t have it.” Brashear asks Sunday why he is helping him after the amputation, and Sunday says, “To piss people off.” It is pretty clear why Mr. Pappy does not want Brashear to graduate — he’s a racist. But why does the later commanding officer want Brashear to retire so badly? Talk, too, about the meaning of “ASNF” on Brashear’s father’s radio, and Sunday’s response to it.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but there the R rating is well-deserved for explicit sexual situations, so parents should watch it before deciding whether it is appropriate for teens.