During an introductory montage toward the beginning of Liz Garbus’ documentary Becoming Cousteau, a talk show hosts stands in front of an audience, with Jacques Cousteau sitting behind him on the stage, and insists that his guest that night will need no introduction. The clip appears to be from the 1970s—an era, now passed, when Cousteau was widely recognizable not just by his name but by his face, too. One of the unlikeliest of celebrities, this aquatic explorer and fervent ecologist would, over the course of his life, become an Oscar-winning filmmaker, a TV star, and the first person a lot of people pictured when they thought about fish.
As the title implies, Becoming Cousteau is partly about how its subject got famous. With a wealth of footage from Cousteau’s expeditions to choose from—plus copious Cousteau commentary from his journals and articles, read in voiceover by Vincent Cassel—Garbus tells how the former French naval officer turned his fascination with deep-sea diving into a lucrative business. Between helping to develop new cutting-edge equipment and exploring parts of the ocean previously unseen by humans, Cousteau was prominent in his field even before he showed up on movie and TV screens. Long fascinated by cinema, he shot films of his expeditions throughout the 1940s and ’50s. One of these, The Silent World—made alongside the young director Louis Malle—won the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award.
But Cousteau really captured the public imagination with his series of TV specials, airing as The Undersea World Of Jacques Cousteau between 1968 to 1976 (and then succeeded by several sequels in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s). Via television, the world came to know his children, Jean-Michel and Philippe-Pierre, as well as the crew of the boat Calypso and their captain’s signature red cap. Garbus doesn’t get into director Wes Anderson’s homage to Cousteau in his film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, but fans of that movie may still be astonished by some of the parallels covered in Becoming Cousteau, including its subject’s messy private life (involving a second, secret family) and the tragic death of one of his sons. One thing the documentary makes clear is that “Jacques Cousteau” was to some extent a character in an ongoing adventure story. And while fans of his shows felt like they knew him, Cousteau kept some parts of his life off screen.
Garbus is an accomplished documentary filmmaker, best-known for her Oscar-nominated The Farm: Angola, USA and What Happened, Miss Simone? But her movies don’t bend documentary convention much. The most visually striking sequence in Becoming Cousteau features some selective colorization of old black-and-white undersea footage, to emphasize the wonders Cousteau was seeing when he ventured underwater. But it’s possible even this unusual expressionistic flourish came straight from the Cousteau archives. For the most part, Garbus and her team show a lot of respect for their subject’s own skills as a documentarian, and just share what he and his crew shot.
Yet Garbus’ curation of those old clips is superb, as is her storytelling. Becoming Cousteau is filled with arresting images, like a sleeping dog sliding back and forth on a rocking boat’s bench, some all-too-rare shots of Cousteau’s luminous and camera-shy first wife Simone Melchior, and a whole lot of pictures of alien-looking underwater landscapes. Garbus also delves into some of Cousteau’s more questionable moves, including helping oil companies find new places to drill and pursuing the escapist fantasy that humanity might someday live in the ocean. Cousteau himself eventually came to regret both these choices, seeing them as an abdication of his responsibility to protect the seas from pollution and exploitation. He even had second thoughts about The Silent World, in which he’s seen killing fish indiscriminately, to study them more closely.
What’s ultimately most compelling about Becoming Cousteau isn’t so much that it harkens back to a time when a sailor and scientist could be a household name, but rather that it engages with how the man used that fame. In the last few decades of his life, Cousteau was a tireless environmental advocate, sounding alarms over what people were doing to the planet. His public image may have been fixed as “the guy who makes lovely movies about the ocean,” but as the tone and message of those films changed, so did his place within them. What this fascinating, thoughtful documentary is really about is how even an icon can evolve. The “becoming” part of a life never really ends.