‘Becoming Cousteau’ Is a Celebratory Fish-Out-of-Water Story

In the beginning of Liz Garbus’ documentary “Becoming Cousteau,” Jacques Cousteau admits he has always felt most comfortable underwater. Often, over the course of his life, he has reasons to regret coming to the surface. When France surrendered to Germany during World War II, Cousteau dived deep into the Mediterranean and didn’t come up to share his education until the war ended. His famed TV documentary series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” began as a chronicle of the wonders of the undersea world. Long before anyone of such repute, Cousteau saw the first cracks of worldwide disaster on the ocean’s floors. In 1979, the man whose name is synonymous with nautical exploration, said the earth had reached a tipping point. ABC cancelled his show. It was a bummer. Cousteau did not submerge. He kept swimming. 

“The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” ran on ABC from 1968 to 1976. He created a second series for PBS. These programs provide some footage for the documentary, including devastating shots of a crumbling Antarctica, which spurred Cousteau into quick action. But Garbus and editor Pax Wassermann also pack “Becoming Cousteau” with archival photos, and personal film footage, including early movies Cousteau directed. He began filmmaking when he was 13, after seeing a silent film set underwater. He had a passion for photography, and designed ways to waterproof his camera. In 1951, he converted a former British minesweeping boat into the Calypso.

Jacques Cousteau was more of a discoverer than an explorer, and he was just as much a filmmaker as an environmental visionary. He didn’t like to call his films documentaries, he called them “true adventures,” and Garbus captures a true adventurer. Not because he sailed raging seas, or strove to dive deeper into the depths of the water, but because of what he brought to ground and said about the danger. In leaner days, he helped find oil-drill sites in the Persian Gulf, and wrought untold wealth for oil companies and sheiks, but unbelievable ecological repercussions for everything else.  In his later years, Cousteau tried to mine redemption, and bring healing, or at least suture an open wound. He dared go against those who would profit from environmental mishap, and set adrift by a network committed to going down with the ship. Like the band which played as the Titanic sank, ABC wanted a much lighter distraction.

Later in life, Cousteau couldn’t even watch his Oscar-winning 1956 documentary, “The Silent World,” because of a brutal scene where the crew beats a shark to death for attacking a whale, and also for being the scourge to sailors since the first ocean voyage. Garbus presents it as a learning moment, and is never preachy, nor abridged. Cousteau’s workaholic ways are revealed to take a toll on his family, even though his wife Simone Melchior, who was nicknamed “The Shepherdess” and oversaw shipping operations, and his two sons, Philippe and Jean-Michel, were as seaworthy as any crewmember.

“I am miserable out of the water,” Cousteau admits in the introduction, but his life, as depicted, is anything but. The film is not a series of heavy failures, sad fortunes, and deep depressions. Garbus shows a man more in love with life than should be allowed for one person. He’s got a bottle of wine in his hand in every other photograph, and manages to show more skin in every dive than the soft-core porn on Showtime. Band-Aids cover more than his bathing bottoms. Cousteau is at one with the sea, and wants nothing to come between his person and its depths. This drives him to push for the creation of the Aqualung, a breathing device which allows the diver to swim freely rather than be tethered to a lifeline above the waves. 

The film is a celebration of Cousteau, and maintains positive forward motion throughout, in spite of harsh realities and personal tragedies. The very first diver to test the Aqualung below 100 feet dies, “of emotion,” as Cousteau puts it, poetically, in scientific retrospect. But the man who captained the Calypso was deeply affected, questioning himself and his nautical obsessions. He worries about whether his curiosity about the unknown is a death sentence for those around him. This is sad, of course, but Garbus points out how each person on the ship equally measured their fear of underwater death against the thrill of the unexpected. Their commitments match his.

As did Cousteau’s son, Phillipe. A clip from “The Dick Cavett Show” captures father and son at odds on the one project deemed too dangerous. His son traveled by sea and air, and while this appears on the surface to be something Jacques would encourage, we see a very frowning father when his son is excited to capture new ecological wonders and worries. Jacques had also begun in the sky, joining the French Navy and training as a pilot. His maritime career began when he sustained a skeletal injury in a car crash. Phillipe never finishes the film project. He dies in a plane crash while piloting a surveying run. 

This event occurs just as Cousteau is at a personal high point in his life, much of which is attributable to Phillipe. After years at sea, Cousteau is almost ready to make himself replaceable. He showed the fragility of the underwater ecosystems, and sparked an environmental movement, which is growing internationally, and he is educating the planet in a remarkably efficient way. He is crying at the moment of his greatest triumph, the creation of the Cousteau Society, which will keep the work going with or without him, and the tears are truly bittersweet. He openly weeps about his son, while celebrating what the two of them were able to accomplish. 

Much of the documentary is incredibly intimate, the narration is shared between the audio tapes of Cousteau and actor Vincent Cassel. Presented by National Geographic, “Becoming Cousteau” is nostalgic and forward-looking. It moves fast, and is more than immersive, it’s submersive. It is informative and secures Jacques Cousteau’s legacy of exploration and environmental activism and his mission to rescue the ocean. But it is a very sad and frightening reminder that Cousteau said the earth’s waters reached its tipping point in 1979.

Becoming Cousteau” releases Oct. 22 in select theaters.