By Lynn Venhaus
Oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau made underwater exploration his life’s passion. In his unmistakable red knit cap and sailing the intrepid vessel The Calypso, he got our attention through his inspiring voyages.
This competently assembled documentary from director Liz Garbus looks at his extraordinary life, achievements, and tragedies. Garbus, an Emmy winner for “What Happened, Miss Simone” and Oscar nominee for “The Farm: Angola, USA,” uses newly restored footage from his archives to create a respectable biography.
Narrator Vincent Cassel reads some passages from Cousteau’s diaries, and his aquatic life was cinematic-ready, so the visuals are what holds one’s attention.
If you are not familiar with his life’s work, finding out about Cousteau’s co-invention of the Aqua-lung, a breathing apparatus for below the ocean’s surface, his innovative filmmaking techniques for under the sea, and his early efforts on conservationism are fascinating.
If you paid attention to his adventures, so well-documented in 120 television documentaries and more than 50 books, then you won’t be surprised – but perhaps have a newfound appreciation for all that he did.
The film is best when it is in water, but not as interesting when it’s on land. The man himself preferred the water too. (His first wife said he ‘smelled like the sea.’) A curious, restless man, the ocean was his oxygen.
He was a young officer in the French Navy when he started his underwater pursuits. His first book, “The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure,” was published in 1953.
As a film pioneer, he adapted his book into a documentary, “The Silent World,” with filmmaker Louis Malle that won an Oscar and the Palme d’or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. A restless man, the ocean was his oxygen,
During his heyday in the 1970s, he was a household name. John Denver released a popular tribute song, “Calypso,” in 1975, and his television show, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” ran on ABC from 1966 to 1976. PBS then ran his “The Cousteau Odyssey” from 1977 to 1982.
After his death in 1997 from a heart attack at age 87, Cousteau’s foundation kept up his environmental work, but the younger generation doesn’t know much about his achievements. He was one of the first to sound alarms about the environment and climate change, growing more panicked about the fate of mankind as the issues grew.
His personal life was complicated – not a particularly good husband or father, which he admits on camera, and his long absences from home affected his two sons, Jean-Michel and Philippe. At age 38, Philippe was killed in a plane crash, which devastated his parents, and Jacques became more driven about work – if that was even possible.
Some of his personal flaws are merely mentioned, but not really delved into – if you’re a tad confused about his marriages, join the club. When his wife of 53 years, Simone, died of cancer in 1990, he married Francine Triplet six months later – although he already had two children with her – Diane and Pierre-Yves. (Hmmm?) Both kids are co-producers of the film. Hmmm…
And while he had missteps – working for petroleum companies early in his career, for example, to pay the bills, his legacy is undeniable.
“Becoming Cousteau” is a nostalgic reminder of how we learned more about sea life through his perspective, and what a beautiful world he introduced us – whether we were enthralled kids or intrigued adults.
“Becoming Cousteau” is a 2021 documentary from National Geographic directed by Liz Garbus. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some disturbing images and smoking, its run time is 1 hour, 33 minutes. It opens in theaters on Oct. 22. Lynn’s Grade: B
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.