This is a review of “Becoming Cousteau” was first published on Sept. 2 after the film’s premier at the Telluride Film Festival.
“We must go and see for ourselves,” Jacques Cousteau declared about the mysteries of the sea. But for those who weren’t so lucky, his oceanographic films were the next best thing. This also applies to “Becoming Cousteau,” a National Geographic documentary given a huge boost from Cousteau’s own footage, and a professional sheen thanks to Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus.
That the film is co-produced by Cousteau’s widow and their two children does lend the project a bit of a work-for-hire feel; to a considerable degree, it’s designed to burnish a legend, rather than explore the subject’s own personal depths. But Cousteau’s work, which was urgent in his time, feels all the more so today.
It’s easy to forget how little we knew — or had seen — when the French explorer won an Oscar for his 1956 documentary “The Silent World.”Multiple devices allow us to virtually meet all kinds of underwater animals instantly. But for many mid-century audiences, Cousteau was their first guide to the secrets of the sea.
Garbus begins two decades earlier, relying heavily on her subject’s own archival photos and film to tell his story. He was devastated by a car accident that ended his dreams of becoming a pilot. A friend suggested that he go swimming in the ocean to regain his strength. He was passionate about photography and worked with an engineer to make the Aqua Lung, which is the predecessor of modern scuba gear.
Soon, he and his crew were full-time on their boat, Calypso. (If their red knit hats don’t immediately bring to mind Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ playfully jaunty score will.)
Their work wasn’t entirely altruistic. Cousteau and his crew used Dynamite to raise large numbers of fish to the surface. They also filmed themselves doing proud handstands on the backs tortoises moving, and then, when money was scarce, they accepted work at oil-drilling sites in the Persian Gulf.
But by the mid-60s, Cousteau had experienced an eco-awakening as one of the earliest observers of human-driven climate change. Cousteau became almost solely focused on education through books, television and lectures. (ABC eventually ended his beloved show. “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,”They felt it was too dark and depressing.
Though the footage Garbus has chosen exudes a charmingly retro vibe, it remains fascinating no matter how many aquarium IMAX movies we’ve seen. Cousteau’s passion is still tangible, and of course his message is more relevant than ever. “Diving,”He insisted. “is the most fabulous distraction you can experience. I am miserable out of the water. It is as if you’ve been introduced to Heaven, and then forced back to Earth.”
But the truth is, however, that “Becoming Cousteau”His earthly experiences could have been more important. His life on the land was complicated but fascinating. Simone, his wife, ran his ship and raised his two oldest sons. He also had two additional children, Diane-Yves and Pierre-Yves with Francine. The latter three serve as this film’s co-producers, and we don’t hear about Francine’s lengthy public battles with Simone’s son Jean-Michel over Cousteau’s legacy. Nor do we learn much about her extensive life with Cousteau until they married, soon after Simone’s death.
Cousteau declared himself a reluctant celebrity, and if you happen to believe there is such a thing, you may feel his personal details are irrelevant. The intention is to simultaneously honor an icon while passing on his important, yet still vital, message. Garbus, who has been making essential documentaries since 1998’s “The Farm: Angola, USA,”These assignments can be handled easily by the author.
Cousteau, who passed away in 1997, described himself to be “a man of integrity.” “a witness to change.” This respectful, visually compelling biography invites –- indeed, implores — a new generation to bear witness, too.
Disney+ has Becoming Cousteau available for streaming