Based on a true story, Robert DeNiro is racist naval commander Billy Sunday who puts African American Charles Brashear (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) through hell in his quest to be a Master Chief Diver in the U.S. Navy. Okay, that sounds all well and good – lots of yelling, racist expletives, subtle racist words like “boy,” there’s just one big problem – none of this is particularly entertaining to watch. In fact, this tale of tough deep sea navy divers takes its subject matter so damn seriously, it left me cringing instead of cheering. It reaches the point of ridiculousness pretty early on when we see Cuba Gooding, Jr. observe his father toiling over his farm. Li’l Cuba picks up a plow and helps dad with the farm. Over emotionally soaring music we transition to an older Cuba still at that plow. Over even more soaring music meant to wrench every bit of emotion out of the audience, Cuba’s dad tells him to leave the farm and never come back. He joins the Navy with aspirations to become a deep sea diver because, well, we’re not sure other than we observed a younger Cuba swimming in the film’s opening sequence.
Okay, here’s where the film gets ugly. It’s set in the 1950s and 60s so Cuba’s character is treated to a dose of ugly racism from just about everyone in the movie including DeNiro. Now, this is where the film lost me. On the one hand, the filmmakers do not want to whitewash the real-life Charles Brashear’s experience in the Navy, so we get the “N” word and “boy” and worse. On the other hand, this is Cuba Gooding, Jr. who’s getting the brunt of this cinematic lynching. It’s not particularly entertaining, in fact, it gets tiresome and kind of sick. I’m making this comment not to diminish what the real-life Charles Brashear went through, which I’m sure was much worse than a slick Hollywood production, I’m saying I don’t enjoy seeing this kind of hateful, racist display on screen. I already know the lesson the filmmakers intend and getting there is not pretty. Especially when we all know that inevitably, DeNiro and Gooding, Jr. are going to “work-through-their-racial-differences-and-come-to-an-understanding-while-becoming-the-best-of-friends.” (You can use that previous statement to describe a host of films like this one.)
The story is certainly a compelling one, but not as portrayed in through Hollywood’s rose-colored glasses. Personally, I would have preferred a documentary about the real Charles Brashear than this overly-sentimental and predictable bio-pic.