Perhaps the first reality TV star, French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau introduced multiple generations to the wonders of the deep. As ripe and deserving a candidate as any for the subject of a documentary, this production—a joint venture between Disney and National Geographic—reveals the details of Cousteau’s lesser-known private life and his extensive work as a filmmaker and producer.
Culling assorted media from a multitude of sources including newsreels, clips from “The Undersea World” TV show, various films, and Cousteau family photos and home movies, director Liz Garbus spent five years assembling the film, and her dogged dedication shows. Aided by a thorough yet unhurried screenplay by Pax Wassermann and Mark Monroe, Garbus makes the most of the economic 93-minutes running time.
An Underwater Career
The recipient of multiple Emmy and Academy Awards as well as the winner of a Peabody Award, Garbus received the full co-operation of the Cousteau family, which has led some to make accusations that she acted as a gun-for-hire by slapping together a biased fluff piece. But this is far from anything resembling a sugarcoated or burnished piece of propaganda.
Had it not been for an automobile accident in 1930 that left him with two broken arms, Jacques-Yves Cousteau would have likely never been known. Part of his recuperation involved swimming in the French Riviera near the city of Toulon, and after an encounter with a stingray, that was it: Cousteau was hooked. From this point forward, he would spend little time on dry land and almost immediately began exploring the world’s waters.
It was during the production of his second feature (“Épaves”), that Cousteau and his creative partners Marcel Ichac and Emile Gaghan began using the Aqua-Lung prototypes (which they designed) for prolonged time underwater. The finished movie caught the eye of the French Navy (in which Cousteau was still active) and the trio was charged with examining underwater war vehicle wreckage and mine clearing. Perhaps not the greatest gig in the world, but one that led to another, which was the first project to study coral reefs.
This project came at a huge public relations cost because the crew of the Calypso used dynamite to clear areas close to the reefs and that resulted in the unintentional slaughter of thousands of nearby fish.
Having proved his talent and drive in relatively short order, Cousteau and his first wife Simone—mostly through private funds and donations—acquired the Calypso, a ship they’d overhaul and eventually occupy for the next half century.
Even with an all-volunteer crew, the cost of operating such an enterprise began mounting, and Cousteau took a job offered to him by the English government (fronting for BP) to search for oil reserves in the Persian Gulf. This decision flew directly in the face of what Cousteau and his team were trying to achieve, and it weighed on him for the rest of his days.
The film hits full stride at the midway point where underwater cameras invented by Cousteau were used to film in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. The footage was assembled and eventually became “The Silent World” (1956), co-directed by Cousteau and Louis Malle.
The movie received numerous accolades including the first of three Academy Awards for Cousteau and the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (a feat not achieved again until 2004 with “Fahrenheit 9/11”). Oddly enough, Cousteau disliked the tag “documentarian” and instead preferred “action director,” while likening himself to directors such as John Ford and John Huston. Over the span of 53 years, Cousteau would direct 23 features and shorts and produce well over 100 television projects.
The Personal Cost
A workaholic by anyone’s definition, Cousteau’s dedication to his career came at a dear cost. A self-admitted “terrible father,” he had little substantial early interaction with the two sons from his first marriage; however, both of them followed in his professional footsteps with wildly different end results.
To be completely fair, Simone was as much of an absentee parent as her husband and ended up logging in more total hours aboard the Calypso than he.
After a 10-year deal with ABC TV expired in 1976, Cousteau went on to produce 10 further series over the next 30 years that didn’t draw nearly the same number of viewers, yet he worked up until the very end. During his final years, Cousteau took it upon himself to become an ecological spokesman rallying against the mounting pollution of global waters, yet managed to do so without injecting politics into the mix. He saw himself as a custodian of the planet and not an “activist” with a peripheral agenda beyond ecology.
A Live-Action Biography Is Needed
As extensive as “Becoming Cousteau” is, it’s still a low-visibility documentary with next to no advertising budget and in all likelihood will be viewed only by established, diehard Cousteau fans.
What we need at this point is a full-blown live-action biography produced by a major studio that will cover the life of this amazing man. It will entertain the masses and educate the young folks who have no intention of ever watching his back catalog. In my humble opinion, Adrien Brody would be the perfect choice to portray Cousteau.
“Becoming Cousteau” is presented in English with frequently subtitled French.
Director: Liz Garbus
Running Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Oct. 22, 2021
Rating: 4 out of 5