Brashear: Be the best.
It is a Based on a True Story movie about Carl Brashear (Gooding), the very first African-American Master Diver of the U.S. Navy. Brashear faces significant obstacles, including racial discrimination, his lack of education having quit school in the seventh grade to work on the family farm, and an antagonist head instructor, Master Chief Petty Officer Leslie William "Billy" Sunday (De Niro), also the man whose bravery inspired Brashear to become a diver.
Ultimately, Brashear overcomes his obstacles to become a Navy Diver, including becoming a national hero for his acts in retrieving the lost atomic bomb in the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash, but his leg is mangled in the bomb retrieval. He has the leg amputated and then embarks on attempting to return to full active duty despite no Navy man having returned to full active duty with a prosthetic. With the help of Sunday, now a brooding alcoholic of reduced rank, but knowledgeable in the ways of bureaucracy, he not only returns to full active duty, but eventually becomes the first African-American Master Diver of the U.S. Navy.
- Appeal to Force: Sunday intimidates a Marine standing watch outside the courtroom. The Marine lets Sunday by, even though keeping him out of the courtroom was his only reason for being there.Chief Sunday: Son, you best step aside or I'll crack you right in the jaw.
- Artistic License Military: Master Chief Sunday's various demotions. For Navy personnel E-7 and above, it takes a full court-martial to demote such a person, not simply captain's mast. And even then, such an individual will be strongly encouraged to retire before it comes to that. The movie is correct in that a chief that has gone through the process of demotion will be more or less stuck in a dead end when it comes to future career advancement until he retires.
- Biopic: A loose biography of Master Chief Carl Brashear.
- Badass Creed: "The Navy Diver is not a fighting man, he is a salvage expert. If it is lost underwater, he finds it. If it's sunk, he brings it up. If it's in the way, he moves it. If he's lucky, he will die young, 200 feet beneath the waves, for that is the closest he'll ever get to being a hero. Hell, I don't know why anybody'd want to be a Navy diver."
- Doubles at as Survival Mantra during the climax.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Sunday tells Carl this about the latter's desire to enter Dive School.
- Determinator: Carl. He stay underwater for over 9 hours to finish his final test at Dive School. He also didn't let having one of his legs amputated get in the way of his military career. Also William Sunday, who in the end fights his alcoholism and regains his rank.
- The Drunken Sailor: Sunday, whose Madness Mantra takes the form of the CPO Rules:Chief Sunday: A chief petty officer shall not drink; however, if he should drink, he shall not get drunk. If he should get drunk, he shall not stagger. And if he staggers, he shall not fall. If he should fall down, he shall fall in such a manner as to cover up his rate so that passers-by will think he is an officer.
- Fake Ultimate Hero: Even though Carl saved the life of a fellow student who was trapped, the credit for his heroics went to a student who had run away.
- The Fake gives Carl the medal before they part ways one last time.
- Freudian Excuse: One of the reasons Sunday hates African-Americans is the fact his father lost his job to one because African-Americans do it for a lesser wage and Sunday's father lost the will to live because of this.
- Good Old Ways: What Carl invokes to impress the hearing board. The admirals certainly agree.
- Captain Hanks hates this trope, believing in a new Navy. His statement of such draws a murmur from the crowd and makes the admirals on the board (and who have likely been in the Navy longer than any of the main characters) visibly uncomfortable.
- Handicapped Badass: Carl, after losing his lower left leg
- I Shall Taunt You: When Carl struggles to continue walking in the heavy suit, Sunday insults him in order for Carl to be motivated by his anger.Sunday: God damn it, Cookie. Move your ass, I want my twelve!
- His mere presence at the hearing is a taunt to Captain Hanks, especially after the admirals say he can stay.
- Jackie Robinson Story: He was not the first African-American Navy diver, but he was the Navy's first African-American master diver. He later became the Navy's first one-legged African-American diver.
- Moving the Goalposts: Though it was done long before the event in question. After getting his prosthetic leg, Carl wants to be reinstated as a Navy Diver again, but the military says no. He makes it a legal challenge, and is told that he has to basically qualify again by making 12 steps unaided in a full diving suit, which weighs well over 400 pounds. When he prepares to do so, with the help of Chief Sunday, Sunday tells the Navy men to help Carl stand up, only to be informed that under new rules, a Navy Diver must stand unaided. The struggle for Carl to get to his feet takes minutes.
- Mundane Made Awesome: Who knew taking 12 steps forward could be so dramatic? Although a one legged person taking 12 steps in a 400 pound diving suit is hardly mundane, in universe.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: CAPT Hanks.
- Pretty in Mink: Sunday's wife.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Each sentence of the Diver's Creed at the end is punctuated by Carl taking a step in the suit.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Overlapping with Deliberate Values Dissonance. After specifically sabotaging Carl's diving qualification exam, Sunday is ordered by the racist admiral in charge of the diving school to let Carl die underwater instead of letting him pass. Sunday deliberately refuses to do so, and is promptly demoted/reassigned after certifying Carl as a Navy Diver.
- Sink-or-Swim Mentor: Sunday's teaching philosophy.
- The Mentor: Sunday to Brashear. Carl wouldn't have made master chief without him.
- Training from Hell: Truth in Television, Navy Dive School really is pretty damn strenuous.
- Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: It seems the story is over when Carl graduated from dive school. Cue the second half of the movie.