2021, PG-13, 93 min. Directed by Liz Garbus.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 22, 2021
For a while, French oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau held the world’s rapt attention like a rock star. Brimming with Gallic charisma, he was the planet’s most famous seaman, easily identifiable by his toothy grin and a trademark knit bonnet rouge atop his head. Beginning in 1966, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a long-running television docuseries about his international aquatic adventures, entranced over 26 million viewers (particularly youngsters like myself), with weekly episodes devoted to topics ranging from the spawning migration of red sockeye salmon to the musical emanations of roving humpback whales. A tardy witness to humankind’s escalating destruction of our oceans, a woke Cousteau also vigorously began amping up ecological awareness and passionately advocating for the protection of marine life through various means around this time, including the nonprofit organization he co-founded in 1973, the Cousteau Society. Close friend John Denver even released a Top Ten song celebrating the Frenchman’s beloved research ship Calypso in the mid-Seventies. For a good decade or more, the media savvy Cousteau seemed to be everywhere in the public eye, using his improbable celebrity at a relatively late age to educate us about an astounding watery world that only a few had previously had the privilege to glimpse.
The documentary Becoming Cousteau richly chronicles his amazing life from cradle to grave, organized primarily according to his myriad accomplishments. The man it celebrates was a genuine Jacques of all trades: explorer, filmmaker, scientist, author, researcher, inventor, and photographer, to name a few of the occupations on his résumé. Cousteau’s obsession with the “dream world” of marine life began after a near-fatal motoring accident in 1936 cut short his training as a French naval pilot. Swimming daily in the waters off Toulon to strengthen his injured limbs, he began to dive and explore the sea floor in crude goggles, and soon had an epiphany about how he would spend his remaining years. In much of the archival footage used to depict this early period, Cousteau and his comrades show scant respect for the finned and flippered denizens of the deep, a dominant image being a skewered fish of some sort. But in later years, he apologized for his regretful contribution to the degradation of marine life. In a telling film clip in which Cousteau discusses his Palme d’Or- and Oscar-winning 1956 documentary The Silent World (co-directed by Louis Malle, fresh out of film school) on a talk show long after its initial release, he bemoaned a scene in which the Calypso crew brutally kills a shark in retaliation for a predatory attack, admitting he was no longer comfortable publicly showing the film given its depictions of animal cruelty.
In addition to recounting other remarkable achievements, such as the co-invention of the diving regulator named Aqualung, this documentary also unflinchingly delves into Cousteau’s private life, relating how he prioritized his career over his family to the latter’s detriment. It also unapologetically documents his extramarital relationship with a younger woman, Francine Triplet, who bore him two children while still married to longtime supportive wife, Simone. (The two quickly married after Simone’s death in 1990.) Though this capable documentary is comprehensively informative in so many ways (perhaps to a fault), the one thing it doesn’t quite convey is the wonder and marvel of the undersea world of Cousteau, which continued to move him until his death at age 87. For that, I suggest watching an episode of his television series or one of his many documentaries to fully appreciate the great man’s legacy. I guarantee: It’ll bring out the kid in you again.