Becoming Cousteau

The ultimate oceanographer and his mini-sub.

(2021) Documentary (National Geographic) Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Vincent Cassel (narrator), Louis Malle, Phillippe Cousteau, Thomas Taillez, Fredéric Dumas, Simone Cousteau, Yves Omer, Bruno Capello, Claude Wesley, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Albert Falco, Jocelyne de Pas, Yves Pacalet, David Wolper, John Soh, Brad Matson, Susan Schefelbein, Francine Cousteau. Directed by Liz Garbus

Beneath the ocean’s waves is an entirely new world, a largely unexplored one, populated by strange and almost magical creatures. One of the first to explore that undersea world was former French naval officer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Aboard his ship the Calypso, he sailed the world’s oceans and brought the denizens of them onto television screens the world over. He became synonymous with the sea, an unlikely celebrity who didn’t seek the fame he received for his work, but would eventually leverage it to inform millions about the peril the seas were in.

In that sense, Cousteau was a Cassandra before his times. He was one of the first to warn of the man-made catastrophe that was ongoing in the ocean’s reefs and fisheries. He was a tireless advocate for conservation, calling for heads of state to cease using the oceans as a dumping ground, and to adopt reasonable limits for fishing. Not many listened, which is why his warnings are still being repeated, albeit more stridently now as the planet rapidly approaches a tipping point which might mean the end of human life on Earth. Sounds dramatic – but it’s sadly oh so true.

Cousteau originally meant to be a pilot for the French Navy, but a devastating car accident put the end to that dream. When a friend suggested swimming in the Mediterranean as a means to convalesce and another introduced him to skin diving, he was hooked. Soon, he was much happier in the water than out of it. He had also developed a passion for photography and he had a yearning to share what he was witnessing in the sea, and a restless desire to see what lay deeper. He helped design waterproof cameras and the aqua lung, an early predecessor to scuba gear.

His yearnings and desire led him to purchase a vintage mine sweeper which was renamed the Calypso and with funding from the French government, went out exploring. When that funding dried up, he found that oil companies were willing to pay handsomely for oil exploration in the Red Sea and he did that for awhile, which he would later come to regret.

His fascination with the moving image led him to make – with then-unknown director Louis Malle – a documentary called The Silent World which won the 1956 Oscar for Best Documentary. Producer David Wolper thought that it would make a great TV show and thus The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was born.

His wife Simone accompanied him on his voyages. She was essentially the business manager for the Calypso and den mother to the crew. Camera-shy and spotlight-wary, she largely stayed out of the limelight while raising their two sons, Phillippe and Jean-Michel, largely without the help of her husband whose busy schedule took him on lecture tours and speaking engagements around the globe. At the same time, he was carrying on an affair with Francine Triplet, who would become his second wife with whom he would father two other children (Diane and Pierre-Yves) while still married to his first.

As the Sixties became the Seventies, he began to notice disturbing changes in his beloved oceans. Areas that had been teeming with fish were growing nearly barren; coral reefs were beginning to show signs of distress. He saw the pollution that was going into the ocean and killing it long before anyone else, and created the Cousteau Foundation (who partially funded the making of this film) to raise awareness of human impact on the oceans and the need for conservation in the seven seas. It is an ongoing effort that continues even more urgently today.

When one of Cousteau’s children died tragically, he became a changed man. His tone grew darker and ABC cancelled his show because it was “too depressing.” His wife Simone died of cancer, opening the door for him to marry Francine. Even with a new family which he made sure to spend more time with, which was one of the regrets he had with his two sons with Simone,

Garbus utilizes a lot of footage shot by Cousteau and his team, curating it rather than presenting it as a normal documentary. She never gets hagiographic with her subject, talking honestly about his change of heart regarding exploitation of the sea (he once advocated for colonizing the sea floor with permanent human habitats) and how, in many ways, he shut his family out emotionally. He expresses his regrets, and downplays his triumphs. Garbus has a more impartial point of view and keeps a steady hand on the wheel. Unfortunately, there isn’t much here that a cursory Wikipedia search wouldn’t reveal, but that seems to be pretty much true of most biographies these days. In any case, the undersea footage holds all the wonder it held for young children first seeing them in the Seventies, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for a treat.

REASONS TO SEE: Some truly spectacular footage, much of it shot by Cousteau himself.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really add much more than you could find in a Google search.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a few disturbing images and some smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cousteau passed away in 1997 at age 87. His funeral was held in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Pure Grit

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