Award-winning filmmaker Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?; The Farm: Angola, USA) set about making her latest documentary, Becoming Cousteau, upon realizing her young children had no idea who Cousteau was. Their understanding of underwater exploration and the importance of the ocean did not come via the recognizable Frenchman in the red beanie on the deck of the Calypso. It seemed unfathomable that such a giant figure in her life could be completely absent from theirs.
The resulting film, clocking in at just over 90 minutes, paints a picture of an intelligent man driven first by his need to explore Earth’s last frontier and then by a need to save it. We follow Cousteau from his beginnings as a pilot in the French Naval Academy to his introduction to free-diving as a way to recover from a major automobile accident to his final days as a proponent of environmental action and change. It delves into the personal cost of his devotion to the sea, while also spotlighting the fact it became a largely familial business.
Becoming Cousteau touches on the necessity of his many inventions, his pivot from successful films to hour-long television (the better medium to reach and educate larger audiences), and even on a time when he became so famous that he was listed next to the President as the person Americans would most like to meet. It leads us through his successes (the protection of Antarctica’s ecosystem via the Madrid Protocol) to his tragedies (the death of his second son Phillip, his unofficial successor).
Garbus doesn’t shy away from some of the questionable decisions of Cousteau’s early adventures, showing his dangerous diving tests (in one case fatal for a colleague), his deep-sea colonization plans and his affiliation with oil drilling in the Persian Gulf. Though uncomfortable with the latter, he saw it as a means to support his vessel, the Calypso, and his various film productions and oceanographic projects. That said, as he ages, we see him clearly demonstrate the idea that once you learn and know better, it’s your responsibility and duty to change. Cousteau admits to doing just that several times throughout the doc—be it understanding the devastating effect drilling and other industrial activities are having on the ocean or learning that to save them, it’s necessary to treat the creatures of the ocean with much more care and reverence. His shift in viewpoint led to his creation of the nonprofit Cousteau Society, an organization dedicated to “saving and protecting marine life for present and future generations.”
Though Cousteau went through long periods of bitterness and depression about the world’s disregard for the health of our oceans and planet as a whole, he ended his life optimistic for what was to come. He believed in humanity and foresaw a time when people would care about climate change and revolt, demanding change. It’s taken us a long time to get here but maybe we’re finally where he thought we could be.
Though he passed away in 1997, Garbus allows Cousteau to speak for himself on almost all topics touched on. She uses his one-on-one interviews—with everyone from Dick Cavett to Michael Parkinson—to great effect, filling in any gaps with Cousteau’s many personal journal entries. They are given voice by French actor Vincent Cassel and beautiful accompanying visuals courtesy of designer Daniel Rutledge.
Garbus is also aided in her telling by the reams of archival footage from the Cousteau Society Archives, including some excerpts that have never been screened publicly before. Cousteau himself began making films at 13. He quickly understood the power of images and saw the camera as his most useful notebook. Filmmaker Louis Malle, a co-director of Cousteau’s Palme d’or and Oscar winning The Silent World, indicated that many directors envy Cousteau’s sense of cinema and it’s not hard to see why when presented shot after shot of rich and compelling images. In fact, Cousteau felt his films were true adventures, not strictly documentaries, and resented them being pigeon-holed as such. We learn he saw himself as the John Ford or John Huston of the ocean.
There’s so much ground here for the documentary to cover and so many resources to plumb for details and information. Given that, the film does very well in picking and choosing deftly and effectively. There are moments where you can’t help wishing there was time built in for some deeper dives on things like his many inventions or the television specials that made Cousteau a household name. But if you expanded on every interesting element of the oceanographer’s 87 years on the planet, we’d be looking at something equal in length to his long-running ABC series.
As an introductory lesson for younger generations, Garbus ably demonstrates what made Cousteau one of the 20th century’s most inspirational and unique ecological voices. For those who were already familiar with the Captain of the Calypso, Becoming Cousteau does justice to the man who introduced untold numbers to environmentalism and the beauty of the undersea world.
Becoming Cousteau screened as a part of TIFF 2021 and is set to hit select theatres on October 22.