‘Becoming Cousteau’ review: The old man and the sea
By A.O. Scott
Jacques-Yves Cousteau died in 1997, and it may be hard for people who came of age in the years that followed to grasp the extent of his fame, or even recognize the category of celebrity to which he belonged.
A former French naval officer with an unquenchable love of the sea, he combined the dash of an old-fashioned adventurer with the technocratic discipline of the first astronauts. He was an inventor as well an explorer, a filmmaker who became an environmentalist and, thanks to his natural charisma and his signature red watch cap, a universally recognized pop-cultural figure.
“Becoming Cousteau,” Liz Garbus’ new National Geographic documentary, succeeds in restoring some of Cousteau’s luster, and also his relevance. It’s a swift-moving, detailed biography, recounting a life that was long, eventful and stippled with tragedy and regret.
The archival footage is enthralling, whether it is tracking coral reefs and shoals of fish or glancing the remarkable history of French men’s swimwear. Cousteau’s ship, a decommissioned minesweeper named the Calypso, appears as a place of swashbuckling, macho high spirits — Simone Cousteau, the captain’s wife, insisted on being the only woman aboard — and rigorous scientific inquiry.
But Garbus (whose recent documentaries include “Love, Marilyn” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?”) is after more than poignant nostalgia or a lost sense of wonder. The story of Cousteau as she tells it — aided by narration culled from interviews with Cousteau’s colleagues and children, as well as audio from the man himself — is about the awakening of his conscience, about how his fascination with Earth’s oceans turned into a crusade to save them.
From the perspective of the present, it seems intuitive that someone devoted to exploring the oceans would also be committed to their preservation. “Becoming Cousteau” suggests something close to the opposite. In the annals of human exploration, curiosity is often a prelude to and enabler of conquest. And so it was, at least at first, with Cousteau.
After injuries suffered in a car crash put an end to his dream of becoming a pilot, Cousteau turned to spearfishing off France’s Mediterranean coast. With his friends Philippe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, he developed new diving techniques and underwater breathing machines that opened new vistas.
After World War II, his ambitions expanded. “The Silent World,” Cousteau’s 1956 feature film — which won both the Palme d’Or in Cannes and the Oscar for best documentary — offered “an hour and twenty-six minutes of pictorial (and piscatorial) thrills,” according to The New York Times’ critic. Like many explorers, Cousteau viewed this newly charted world as something to be exploited, even colonized. He looked forward to permanent undersea human settlements, and the rise of “homo aquaticus,” a new type of human habituated to life in the water.
He also accepted money and commissions from the petroleum industry, which was eager to find offshore sources of oil. Much of Cousteau’s later activism was frank penance for this work, and for his role in hastening the fouling of the oceans he cherished. His ecological warnings were prescient, and not without cost. American television executives stopped broadcasting his documentaries, finding them too “dark,” “strident” and “cynical.”
Garbus’ film takes account of the personal losses that shadowed Cousteau’s later years, including the death of Simone and of their son Philippe. But like most documentaries about environmental and social issues — and about well-known, well-regarded people — it accentuates the positive.
Cousteau provides an inspirational example of passion harnessed to a noble purpose, becoming an ambassador on behalf of beleaguered and fragile ecosystems. He is determined in his optimism, even as he worries — in the 1980s and 90s — that it may be too late to save the whales, the coral, the glaciers and the fish. “Becoming Cousteau” clings to that optimism, perhaps because the alternative is too worrisome to contemplate.