“We must go and see for ourselves,” Jacques Cousteau declared about the mysteries of the sea. But for those who weren’t so lucky, his oceanographic films were the next best thing. This is also true of “Becoming Cousteau,” a National Geographic documentary given a huge boost from Cousteau’s own footage, and a professional sheen thanks to Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus.
That the film is co-produced by Cousteau’s widow and their two children does lend the project a bit of a work-for-hire feel; to a considerable degree, it’s designed to burnish a legend, rather than explore the subject’s own personal depths. But Cousteau’s work, which was urgent in his time, feels all the more so today.
It’s easy to forget how little we knew — or had seen — when the French explorer won an Oscar for his 1956 documentary “The Silent World.” Today, multiple devices can bring us virtually face to face with all manner of underwater creatures immediately. But for many mid-century audiences, Cousteau was their first guide to the secrets of the sea.
Garbus begins two decades earlier, relying heavily on her subject’s own archival photos and film to tell his story. After a devastating car accident ruined his plans to become a pilot, a friend suggested he swim in the ocean to rebuild his strength. His passion for photography kept him searching for ways to capture what he saw, and after figuring out how to waterproof his camera, he worked with an engineer to create the Aqua Lung, a predecessor to modern scuba gear.
Soon he and his crew were out on their boat, the Calypso, full time. (If their red knit hats don’t immediately bring to mind Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ playfully jaunty score will.)
Their work wasn’t entirely altruistic. Cousteau and his crew used dynamite to bring masses of fish to the surface, filmed themselves proudly doing handstands on the backs of moving tortoises, and finally, when money ran out, accepted work finding oil-drill sites in the Persian Gulf.
But by the mid-60s, Cousteau had experienced an eco-awakening as one of the earliest observers of human-driven climate change. From there, he became almost single-mindedly focused on education through television shows, books, and lectures. (ABC eventually cancelled his beloved show “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” because they felt its increasingly dire tone was too depressing.)
Though the footage Garbus has chosen exudes a charmingly retro vibe, it remains fascinating no matter how many aquarium IMAX movies we’ve seen. Cousteau’s passion is still tangible, and of course his message is more relevant than ever. “Diving,” he insisted, “is the most fabulous distraction you can experience. I am miserable out of the water. It is as if you’ve been introduced to Heaven, and then forced back to Earth.”
The truth is, though, that “Becoming Cousteau” could have used a little more focus on his earthly experiences. His landlocked life was messy but interesting, with his wife Simone running his ship and raising his two eldest sons while he simultaneously had two more children, Diane and Pierre-Yves, with his girlfriend Francine. The latter three serve as this film’s co-producers, and we don’t hear about Francine’s lengthy public battles with Simone’s son Jean-Michel over Cousteau’s legacy. Nor do we learn much about her extensive life with Cousteau until they married, soon after Simone’s death.
Cousteau declared himself a reluctant celebrity, and if you happen to believe there is such a thing, you may feel his personal details are irrelevant. Regardless, the intention is simultaneously to honor an icon and to pass on his prescient, and still crucial, message. Garbus, who has been making essential documentaries since 1998’s “The Farm: Angola, USA,” manages both of those assignments with ease.
Cousteau, who died in 1997, described himself as “a witness to change.” This respectful, visually compelling biography invites –- indeed, implores — a new generation to bear witness, too.
“Becoming Cousteau” opens in US theaters October 22.