Since at least the onset of the media-savvy age (which began roughly around the time of the first televised Kennedy-Nixon debates), it’s taken a certain kind of brainy “celebrity” to plant scientific ideas in the public consciousness. Kids in the ’50s and ’60s grew up on “Mr. Wizard’s World,” while kids in the ’90s had “Billy Nye The Science Guy.” For one generation it was Marlin Perkins who introduced them to the world of zoolology; for another it was Steve Irwin. Carl Sagan got countless people interested in astronomy before passing the torch (and the telescope) to Neil deGrasse Tyson. For the last 60 years’ worth of natural history we have the indefatigable David Attenborough to guide us. And in the world of oceanography, one name remains an icon, decades after his passing. When you think of the deep blue sea, you can’t help but think of Jacques Cousteau.
Becoming Cousteau is the latest National Geographic-produced documentary; and as its title promises, it traces the life and work of world-famous ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Directed by Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA; Girlhood; Love, Marilyn; Bobby Fischer Against the World), the film traces Cousteau from his early days as a French naval officer to his ultimate quest to preserve the world’s oceans. Cousteau’s life was remarkably well catalogued before Garbus stepped in. He picked up a camera as a teenager, making short films in the 1920s, and he pioneered a style of nature documentary that placed the filmmaker front and center as both subject and narrator. Garbus’ job is to assemble this voluminous historical footage into a cohesive timeline and to dive deep into the man behind the camera.
Jacques Cousteau “became” the Cousteau we all know at a fairly early age. Severely wounded in an automobile accident, the young Cousteau was introduced to the sport of “free diving” as a form of physical therapy. After dipping his toes into the water off Toulon, France, Cousteau never looked back. “I am miserable outside the water,” declares the late Capt. Cousteau in the film’s opening narration. Garbus’ film proves this, rarely showing the man out of swim trunks or a diving suit.
The highlights are all here: his invention of the Aqua-Lung, his lifelong tenure aboard the Calypso, the lensing of his first award-winning documentary feature The Silent World. For those who grew up on “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and John Denver’s 1975 hit “Calypso,” this is a major trip down memory lane. For those who did not, it’s an important history lesson. Cousteau wasn’t just na advocate for the world’s oceans and the life therein, he was a pioneer of the televised documentary series. Without him, we’d arguably have no Discovery Channel, no Animal Planet. The grainy, color-faded footage from Cousteau’s old films and TV shows is somewhat antiquated in today’s world of high-definition digital filmmaking. But it’s important to note that Cousteau helped invent the underwater cameras that shot this footage, and that it was often the first of its kind ever seen by humans. It’s fascinating to listen to Cousteau, who speaks volumes for himself on camera and in archival interviews. (His personal letters are even read aloud courtesy of French actor Vincent Cassel.) Evidently, he bristled at the label of “documentary,” preferring instead the title “true adventure films.” He hated the idea of being a boring old professor lecturing people about nature. Instead, he wanted to take them by the hand and lead them down into the ocean depths that he loved so much.
Becoming Cousteau doesn’t dwell too long on Cousteau’s personal life. We see how his globe-hoping adventures often cut out his two sons, and how his wife, Simone Melchior, was (if you can believe it) even more obsessed with the ocean than he was. But it’s Cousteau’s public crusade that takes center stage. Cousteau himself expressed little interest in self-reflection. Hated it, in fact (often to the detriment of his family). But when it came to our planet’s eco-system and the preservation of the oceans, he was at his most passionate. Garber’s film points out the ironic detail that many of his early expeditions were funded by British Petroleum and the fact that Cousteau himself was directly responsible for much of the present-day offshore oil wealth in the Middle East. This comes into sharp contrast in Cousteau’s later life when he witnesses, firsthand, the depletion of world’s coral reefs and the devastating effects of industrial pollution on marine habitats.
Cousteau’s legacy remains large, even 25 years after his passing. But it’s important to remember what he did—and everything he tried to do—for this planet. It’s a shame, really, that it takes such a large personality to make us laymen pay attention to boring scientific facts like biodiversity, environmental pollution and global warming. Because, as Becoming Cousteau proves, personalities like his are critically endangered.
Directed by Liz Garbus
Opens Friday in theaters