movie review

Cousteau and Me

Becoming Cousteau.
Becoming Cousteau. Photo: The Cousteau Society/National Geographic

Everything I am goes back to the sea. And not just on a species level, either. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to spend my summers on Turkey’s Aegean coast, and I started diving and spearfishing at a young age; I caught my first octopus when I was 11, my first grouper and my first moray when I was 12. The sea was all I cared about. (I was a child, of course, so it took some years for me to realize I could no longer kill these magnificent creatures.) I talked about becoming a marine biologist when other kids talked about becoming firemen or astronauts. Almost all of the books I wanted to read were sea books. I made my grandfather read the entirety of a then-new unabridged Turkish translation of Moby-Dick to me when I was six. (I still can’t believe the poor man actually did it; the damn thing was huge.) Even my cinephilia probably comes from the sea. Most of the movies I watched as a kid were sea movies: Tentacles, The Deep, Orca: the Killer Whale, Jaws, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Warlords of Atlantis, and that Italian airplane-disaster knockoff where the Concorde crashes into the sea and James Franciscus has to scuba dive after it.

The thing is, I wasn’t some weird anomaly. I was a part of the Cousteau Generation, just one of millions of kids around the world who were enchanted and inspired by repeated airings of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, the TV series in which the French captain explored the planet’s seas along with the intrepid crew of his ship Calypso, a converted WWII minesweeper that seemed like the world’s coolest, coziest aquatic mobile home. The bulk of the series had ended its run by 1976, but the show continued to air across the world in every imaginable language, introducing us to new seas, new lands, new species, and new natural phenomena. But we were also drawn to the slender, curious figure of Cousteau himself. With his gaunt, weathered face, he seemed to be a thousand years old, a gentle sage from another dimension. We idolized his sons Philippe and Jean-Michel and mourned along with Cousteau when Philippe, a daring pilot and cameraman, was killed tragically in a 1979 plane crash in Portugal.

Liz Garbus’s informative new documentary, Becoming Cousteau, follows the man’s whole life, but it’s particularly effective at capturing the magic of those years when the show was on the air. The film reminds us that during his heyday, Cousteau was as iconic as Muhammad Ali or Elvis, an instantly recognizable visionary who changed how we saw our world. It also reveals that he made his share of personal and professional mistakes, which he spent years regretting and even trying to undo. Cousteau and his first wife, Simone, were so devoted to their travels and their work that they often neglected their kids, who spent their early years in boarding schools when they weren’t being put to work aboard the Calypso. I was too young to notice at the time that in the years following Philippe’s death, Cousteau became a grimmer, more severe figure as his gathering concern over what was happening to the oceans slipped into full-on nihilistic agony over the future of the earth. For a movie that’s essentially a celebration of a great man’s career (produced with the assistance of members of his family and the Cousteau Society), Becoming Cousteau is at times admirably dark.

Cousteau was a dreamer, and it’s often the business of dreamers to be wrong, sometimes in spectacular ways. In the 1950s and ’60s, he believed wholeheartedly that humanity’s future lay in colonizing the seas and living in massive underwater complexes; he even undertook several major experiments to prove it could be done. But by the 1970s, he felt humans had no business living in the sea, especially since we had proved that we barely deserved to live aboveground. Many of his early explorations were financed by oil companies, who took full advantage of his discoveries and inventions. (In 1954, Cousteau helped locate the undersea oil sources that led to much of Abu Dhabi’s wealth. “We found their oil,” as he bluntly puts it in an interview included here.) You can feel the shame in his appearances, the sense that he had helped unleash forces that would destroy the very things he loved most in the world. Apart from audio and video of Cousteau’s interviews, the film features the actor Vincent Cassel reading his words, creating a present-tense psychological portrait of a surprisingly conflicted man. In restoring Cousteau’s human side, Becoming Cousteau shows us both his brilliance and his shortcomings, and it suggests that these extremes were fundamentally connected. He was soft-spoken and modest on the surface yet consumed by an ambition that was driven as much by his remorse as by his vision.

One of the rarest movies I tried to locate as a young cinephile was a copy of Cousteau’s legendary 1958 documentary The Silent World, co-directed by a young Louis Malle and the winner of both a Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Best Documentary Oscar. You’d think such a pedigreed title from such a well-known figure would be readily available, but it was impossible to find. Many, many years later, when I was finally able to view it — it can now be found on YouTube — I was shocked to discover that the picture ends with an extended massacre of sharks by the crew of the Calypso. Becoming Cousteau reveals that this was the reason The Silent World was so hard to find: In his later years, Cousteau had become so upset by those scenes that he decided he couldn’t allow the film to be shown anymore.

Even so, Cousteau saw himself as much a filmmaker as an explorer, and he appears to have shot everything, which gave Garbus a dazzling wealth of archival footage to work with, including some of Cousteau and his collaborators’ early experiments with the Aqua-Lung, the underwater breathing apparatus that made scuba diving possible. We even see the early death of a crew member when the team tried to break a depth record back when diving technology was still fresh and largely untested. It’s rare, even today, to see real dead bodies on camera. Watching the crew trying to save this man using tools that look vaguely like medieval torture devices, one senses just how new, how dangerous all this stuff was. Humanity’s journey to the deep was not a given or even well advised.

Garbus herself has a great eye, so she knows what footage to use and how. Cousteau’s early dream was to be the John Ford of the seas, and you can see it in the poetry of his images, which can be simultaneously wide-eyed and forlorn (in other words, Fordian). There is a sensibility behind the camera in his work — whether it was actually shot by him, his son, Malle, or someone else — that understands the sea as a completely different universe with its own rules, its own physics. Observe how the camera will drift among a school of fish, or glide with a manta ray, or capture an octopus as it expands and propels. These may seem like no-brainers now, but they were not when Cousteau first got started. He found a cinematic language to express these things that most people had never seen. No wonder entire generations were captivated by this stuff. It wasn’t just the subject matter; it was the filmmaking itself. Garbus conveys that beautifully while briskly threading Cousteau’s biography and emotional journey throughout.

Becoming Cousteau is one of several excellent documentaries about the sea to come out this year. This summer saw the release of Sally Aitken’s Playing With Sharks, which charts the life of diver-filmmaker-activist Valerie Taylor (who had a similar trajectory to Cousteau’s, helping to popularize sharks through her remarkable films — including footage used in key scenes of Jaws — only to discover that she had inadvertently helped demonize them as fearsome predators), and Joshua Zeman’s The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, about attempts to locate the mysterious “52 hertz whale,” a creature that has been heard but never seen. The movies are lovely, but collectively they strike an unbearably despairing note. As Garbus’s film makes clear, Cousteau was already aware by the late 1960s that our oceans were dying. One of his aims with his TV show was to bring his passion for the sea to younger generations that might eventually be able to do something about it — because, as he put it, “you protect what you love.” More than half a century later, it’s hard not to feel, for all the wonder and joy Cousteau brought us, that we have failed to love our seas enough to protect them.

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Cousteau and Me