Review: In Chronicling His Life and Work, Becoming Cousteau Paints a Complex Portrait of a Complicated Man

Like Jane Goodall and Richard Attenborough, the name Jacques Cousteau is known around the world for its association with environmental causes. Where Goodall is closely tied to primates and Attenborough to nature as a whole, Cousteau owns the realm of water, dedicating his life to inventing new ways to dive into the sea and explore the rich, diverse life that calls the ocean home. For many, the extent of knowledge about Cousteau ends there; if pressed to elaborate on details of the man’s life and work, very few would probably have much to say. Which is where acclaimed documentarian Liz Garbus (All In: The Fight for Democracy; What Happened, Miss Simone?) comes in, with an enlightening and personal account of Cousteau, expanding on his life and legacy in ways we’re all better off for discovering.

Becoming Cousteau
Image courtesy of National Geographic

Spanning several decades in the explorer, scientist and activist’s life, Becoming Cousteau makes interesting work of chronicling Cousteau’s many contributions to oceanography as well as the personal triumphs and tragedies that shaped his outlook on the world. Born in 1910, Cousteau first found the water as a French naval officer, though an injury ended his military career prematurely. By the late 1930s he was already diving, and by the early 1940s, he was exploring the world of deep-sea diving, working with collaborators to refine the first “aqua-lungs,” allowing divers to breathe at ever more dangerous depths. The men had a lot to consider, from piping breathable oxygen into the suit to counteracting the effects of intense water pressure; in these early years, casualties certainly happened as the technology struggled to catch up with the men and their ambitions.

Cousteau is perhaps best known for his adventures crossing the globe by sea in the Calypso, his trusty vessel that would be his home on the water for decades and be the sight of many a historical and scientific discovery. Garbus combines the prolific amount of news and interview footage of Cousteau with his own footage (Cousteau married his passion for the sea with a natural filmmaker’s instinct to capture everything he could), as well as narration from his own letters and writings. Together, it all creates a holistic, approachable portrait of the man who was raising the alarm bells about climate change and the essential nature of sea life in our ecosystem decades before most were paying attention to this sort of thing.

Garbus doesn’t shy away from Cousteau’s personal life in recounting how he became the celebrity he was; married in 1937, he and his wife Simone had two sons, both of whom followed their father into the world of oceanography, diving and even filmmaking. Their relationship as a family wasn’t always smooth sailing (forgive me); though Simone and the boys embraced Cousteau’s life at sea and often joined him on his adventures, Cousteau comments more than once that he knows he missed opportunities to be present and attentive to his family, dedicated as he was to his work. Following Simone’s death in 1990, Cousteau quickly married a younger woman who, if you’re tracking the timelines, he was involved with long before his first spouse’s passing. Environmentalist, scientist, filmmaker and a major influence on the course of oceanographic studies, Cousteau was also a flawed, imperfect human, a man who faced his own challenges in relationships and life.

Cousteau died in 1997, and it’s actually a wonder that there hasn’t been a film this comprehensive about his life and work until now. With access to personal letters, family snapshots and home movies, as well as the prolific archives of a man who produced so much during his life, Garbus not only introduces us to the man we all know by name, but makes sure we understand the full complexity of his life, his work and his legacy. Becoming Cousteau is as educational as it is insightful, avoiding the ever-imminent risk of being far too stale by incorporating the many layers of a man’s complex existence.

Becoming Cousteau is now playing in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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