Documentary Review: A pioneering diver, ecologist and filmmaker — “Becoming Cousteau”

Jacques Cousteau was an omnipresent part of the lives of generations, the first “undersea explorer,” inventor of the aqualung — which brought modern scuba diving to life –a one-time oil-company sponsored explorer who helped develop undersea oil extraction who became the greatest environmentalist of his day, he cast a giant shadow over world culture and the ways all of us think about the planet and its oceans.

But in “Becoming Cousteau,” the revealing and moving new documentary now streaming on Disney+, filmmaker Liz Garbus shows us a passionate man who drifted into despair in his later years, an imperfect man who was his own harshest critic, an icon so embittered by the lack of progress in saving the oceans and the planet that he resented even giving autographs by the end.

If there’s a good thing about the passing of Jacques-Yves Cousteau in 1997, it’s that he exited before the narcissistic selfie mania that would have surely driven him mad.

You couldn’t miss Cousteau on North American TV when I was growing up. His “Undersea World” series and specials were an ABC staple, so much so that he became an object of imitation and fun, taken for granted by a culture that got its first taste of what the world under the sea looked like through his documentaries, a label he hated right from the start.

“They are adventure films!”

The first surprise “Becoming Cousteau” delivers in this re-examination of his life is that the ex-French Navy officer saw himself, first and foremost, as a filmmaker. “My sense of cinema” was his great gift, he insisted, not his passion for the sea, his inventing or his talent for communicating the urgent need to save this “undersea world” from unchecked pollution, exploitation and development.

He got his first film camera at 13, during the silent film era. And one of the reasons “Becoming Cousteau” is so revelatory is the fact that Garbus had access to a treasure trove of early footage, films Cousteau shot right after taking up snorkeling and spear fishing as rehab after a bad car accident in the 1930s.

An American had already popularized holding-your-breath recreational diving — snorkeling. Spear fishing existed all over the world, even places where the water wasn’t warm enough to dive in and pursue your prey.

But Cousteau met someone who’d invented a gas regulator for cars, and adapted that for the first scuba tanks, liberating him to explore the world that so transfixed him.

We learn that his first wife, Simone, loved the sea as much as he did and loved the converted U.S. minesweeper he turned into the “Calypso” after World War II even more. She lived on it as he traveled the globe, marketing the films he started making in the 1950s, becoming a “brand” for diving and taking a camera down with you.

The early history is the most interesting part of this film, taking us back to the events that put him in the water and made it his passion.

His celebrity is reflected in the scores of TV show appearances, as interview subject and more, that were a part of his growing fame in the ’60s and 70s, a wizened grandfatherly Frenchman with a stocking cap and pipe always at hand.

But we’re also reminded that he considered himself a bad parent and became embittered and depressed after the death of his partner and “favored” son Philippe, who crashed flying a plane for a documentary project he was producing.

If you followed his work at all, you remember the later films and their bleak depictions of pollution and the dying seas — his beloved Mediterranean especially — that he’d once shown us were full of life. He never quite gave up, but some of the fire went out of him even as the planet was finally awakening to a threat he’d seen coming since the ’60s.

“My job was to show what was in the sea so people would get to know and love it…You only protect what you love.”

If he thought himself a failure, as the film suggests, that’s a crying shame. Like millions of others, I was fascinated by what he showed us was underwater and made snorkeling a lifelong passion. Seeing footage of him watching a 1960s NASA launch just down the street from where I dock the sailing yacht I live on reminded me of his role in making a life by the sea, on it and under it, so damned attractive.

His reflective nature meant that he quickly realized that he was no better than others at protecting the sea in his youth, and that he recognized his biggest failings were humanity’s, he and we “just didn’t know any better.” His faith, shaken as it no doubt was, was that we’d wake up to the threat and act decisively, just as he did.

The jury’s still out on that, but not on Cousteau. He is a singular figure in human history, and “Becoming Cousteau” does a decent job of showing how that came to be, the burden it might have been and the regrets he left behind, many of them warnings which we’re still only slowly taking heed of over two decades after his death.

Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, some disturbing images and smoking.

Cast: Jacques Cousteau, Philippe Cousteau, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Francine Cousteau, Simone Cousteau, Albert Falco, Frédéric Dumas, Dick Cavett, Jocelyne de Pass, David L. Wolper and the voice of Vincent Cassel.

Credits: Directed by Liz Garbus, scripted by Mark Monroe and Pax Wasserman. A National Geographic Film on Disney+.

Running time: 1:34

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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