Review: ‘Becoming Cousteau’

Looking back at Jacques Cousteau’s Cannes winning 1956 film The Silent World, it doesn’t quite give the indication of the fervor that would erupt from the filmmaker and adventurer later in life. Like most of his other works during that time for television, they inspire awe and wonderment for a portion of the earth never seen by the public up until then. I even remember watching these films in elementary school and being floored by their specific cinematic beauty. Jacques Cousteau was a diver…. an educator…. and a television star, sharing his vision of an alien-like planet bubbling right beneath our stone feet.

Naturally, why wouldn’t a man so deeply in love with that world eventually lobby so hard to save it? That’s the beautiful progression given to Jacques in Becoming Cousteau, the new film by Liz Garbus. Cousteau becomes such an advocate for global climate awareness that, late in life, he refused to show his most famous film because of the brutality it showed against the natural world. It begs the question as to how many filmmakers would regulate their past visions and censor themselves nowadays?

But way before those pangs of conscience, the film shows how Cousteau became Cousteau, from his many inventions including the aqualung for diving and a camera that could be submerged underwater for his brilliant underwater travails, right up to his conflicted choice of working with the oil industry to unearth oil sediments. It was a risible way to make ends meet, but it also gave him his famous Calypso boat that would ferry him and a hearty crew around the world for decades for come.

However, far from making a complete societal martyr out of him, Becoming Cousteau reveals the failures in his life, such as his empty appreciation of his family as they grew up, plus his tenuous relationship with wife Simone for 50 years. I can’t help but imagine there’s a documentary somewhere about her resilience and equal-minded passion for the ocean as Jacques. It’s a balanced approach to a man who certainly wasn’t perfect, but sure seemed that way to a generation of wide-eyed children and their introduction to the ocean world.

Put together competently by veteran documentary director Garbus, Becoming Cousteau follows the typical beats of a National Geographic effort. What sets it apart, though, is the subject matter and available material. Told mostly through the voice and ideals of Cousteau (with some narration filled in by actor Vincent Cassel), the film uses Cousteau’s underwater scenery and home-movie like footage on the Calypso to tell the story of a man who we all owe a debt of gratitude.

It’s hopeful the film begins with a coliseum of children listening intently to an aged Cousteau talk about his experiences. It’s also a dire warning that the man who once held so much promise for underwater colonization later stated that opportunity was gone due to our pollution of the planet. And that was 30 years ago. If nothing else, Becoming Cousteau shows he wasn’t a passive observer, and that his pleas for a greener world haven’t landed on deaf ears.

Becoming Cousteau opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday October 22nd at the Angelika Dallas and Plano locations, select AMC theaters and Cinemark Plano locations.