REVIEW: Becoming Cousteau [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 93 minutes
    Release Date: October 22nd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: National Geographic / Picturehouse
    Director(s): Liz Garbus
    Writer(s): Mark Monroe & Pax Wassermann

We must go and see for ourselves.

A title like Becoming Cousteau would have you imagining a journey from youth to death with historical anecdotes and archival footage describing an upbringing that led to a legendary life. For Jacques-Yves Cousteau, however, director Liz Garbus and screenwriters Mark Monroe and Pax Wassermann didn’t have to go that far back. The man we know didn’t originate until after a devastating car accident led him to two French divers who believed the water could help him rehabilitate. And even then—with the trio making huge strides to discover what lay beneath the Mediterranean surface—Cousteau remained incomplete. He was an adventurer and inventor, but not yet a filmmaker and activist. That would come in time post-WWII and post-costly mistakes that would ultimately end up pushing him towards repentance.

Hearing a collaborator explain how they assumed Cousteau would ultimately end up working for Big Oil is quite the revelation. He would end up moving into television and soon evolve his explorations for entertainment and education into research by exposing just how far things had fallen, but the fact he was that close to the corporations that were destroying his water means something. They bankrolled his ship Calypso. He found them their black gold. It was a symbiotic relationship both capitalized upon while also setting the stage for a fight that continues today—an unfortunate reality considering Cousteau died in 1997 believing he was making headway towards changing hearts and minds about the environment. Sadly, the void his death left allowed the world to continue pursuing profits instead.

But that’s not what Garbus’ film is about. She does well to leave it in (along with his affair and second marriage to a much younger Francine shortly after his wife, business partner, and Calypso steward Simone Melchior passed) because Cousteau was nothing if not aware of his own flaws. We hear him admit he was a bad husband and father precisely because he refused to put anything (including family) ahead of his underwater exploits. That honesty allows us to let Garbus gloss over the not-so-great moments of his life and dig into the good ones instead because Becoming Cousteau is a memorial highlighting his genius and compassion rather than an exposé digging up dirt to defame either. Oil backed him, but it didn’t rule him.

Is hearing that nobody knew exactly how bad dumping toxic waste chemicals into the ocean was an excuse? No. I think Garbus and company should have done more to reconcile Cousteau’s past and future as a result, but I get why they didn’t. It’s the same reason his television specials were canceled: audiences want to be awed, not depressed. The more serious he got explaining the three decades of pollution from his earliest dives to his 1970s fame, the fewer advertisers (surely bankrolled by Big Oil) were willing to cough up cash. The more controversial his depiction becomes in this documentary, the less inspired we become by his accomplishments. And we should be inspired since Cousteau did amazing things that far outweigh helping to build Abu Dhabi’s wealth.

He invented the aqualung. He revolutionized undersea filmmaking. He won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, helped famed director Louis Malle cut his teeth as an intern, and eventually became one of the most recognizable faces in the entire world. That he did most of this before the fame only shows how prolific and instrumental to his field he was. I laughed out loud during the part of the film that talks about his transition to TV when someone recalls how footage of him on-camera was labeled “old man in red beanie” because he was still an unknown commodity in America. How quickly that would change, though. New generations of children watched his specials, mesmerized by this new world of creatures and possibilities. He broadened horizons and earned respect.

To see the clips of his films restored is quite the sight. Garbus uses narration (from Vincent Cassel reading Cousteau’s diaries and biographers) as well as archival interviews, but never shows the person’s face while doing so. Rather than devolve into talking heads, she understands that the documentaries (or “true life adventures” as Cousteau called them) are the draw. We’re therefore always watching something. Sometimes its photos of the captain and his collaborators or talk show appearances, but mostly it’s glimpses at the colorful marine life and environments captured during his numerous missions. The work is his legacy after all—not his children (although his eldest son Phillippe does play an integral role in his life while Jean-Michel is mentioned only a few times in passing).

He was a flawed man and renowned hero, both titles going hand-in-hand to become a driving force for the other. I can imagine many other documentaries to come that expound on the myriad forks in the road and captivating transitions mentioned in this one. Cousteau’s family life could earn a feature length tale all its own considering Simone was on Calypso more than he was. So too could his effect on the oil industry—both in building it and placing warranted blame. And then there is his prowess as a filmmaker. Malle says many of his contemporaries could have learned something from Cousteau even if most only knew him as an explorer. There’s so much left unspoken, but Becoming Cousteau opens the door for it to be heard.

courtesy of TIFF

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