Review: 'Becoming Cousteau' a Revealing Look at the Famed Undersea Explorer

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 24, 2021

'Becoming Cousteau'
'Becoming Cousteau'  (Source:National Geographic)

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was much more than the showman who conducted American viewers through a series of revelatory undersea documentaries. He was also a cinematographer, an inventor, a Naval officer, and an early, passionate advocate of efforts to protect and preserve the environment.

Now Liz Garbus, the Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker behind "What Happened, Miss Simone?," serves in a way not unlike that of Cousteau himself, delving deep under the surface of the famed co-inventor of the Aqua-Lung, an innovation that improved scuba ("self contained underwater breathing apparatus") technology.

Surprisingly, while his wife, Simone Melchior, always had a passion for the sea (she described herself as having "salt water in [her] veins," the doc tells us), Cousteau was initially an aviator. He didn't discover a talent, or an appreciation, for the world under the waves until he survived a car crash that left him with a dozen broken bones; a pair of friends got him into swimming, snorkeling, and diving as a means of physical therapy as Cousteau recovered.

An avid filmmaker since his youth, Cousteau began documenting his undersea explorations on film. He didn't just help refine underwater breathing technology; he also designed underwater movie cameras and, as a cinematographer, helped shape what undersea films looked like. He made a few movies, and took to the sea on the Calypso, which became his home base as well as a home to his wife and two sons, but didn't make much money until he was hired to explore for oil. (We hear about how it was Cousteau who found the oil deposits that made Abu Dhabi rich.)

Once Cousteau began to witness how the exploitation of the sea — for oil as well as commercial fishing, and the use of the oceans as a dumping ground — was destroying undersea ecology, he turned his considerable energies to advocacy. He also sought to reach a wider audience by making documentaries for television, and it was when ABC financed his twelve-episode series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" that he achieved international fame.

There's much more to the story, including Cousteau's invention of new kinds of submersibles and his visionary ideas for colonizing the seafloor. Garbus touches on all those things, which is gratifying, but doesn't delve as deeply into other parts of Cousteau's life. The man himself spoke of having been so obsessed with his work that he was a negligent husband, father, and friend; we hear about how he preferred younger son Philippe, and intended Philippe to continue his work. Philippe was killed in a flying accident in 1979; the loss was devastating, and we hear (and see) how it affected Cousteau. We don't hear enough about his family life to completely contextualize the loss, though; Cousteau "sidelined" his elder son, Jean-Michel, but how did Jean-Michel respond to that? Cousteau and Jean-Michel worked more closely after Philippe's death, but was there a process of reconciliation that was needed?

And what about Cousteau's other two children, whom he had with Francine Triplet while still married to Melchior? What did his wife think of this? Cousteau married Triplet after Melchior's death in 1990, and one can't help but wonder how Cousteau and his family understood these relationships, but the doc skirts around these questions.

Still, this is a fascinating work. If you grew up watching "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," you'll find both nostalgia and an enlarged understanding of the famed explorer here. Even if not, you may find yourself amazed at Cousteau's prescience; he foresaw the catastrophes that we're now beginning to glimpse as the result of climate change and other kinds of environmental mismanagement, and he did everything in his power to communicate the urgency of the situation. The problem, then as now, was that people simply didn't want to hear it — and that was at a time when millions turned out for Earth Day. (Indeed, ABC stopped airing his films because, we're told, they became too "dark" for audiences of the time.)

Even so, Cousteau helped usher in a compact between nations to save Antarctica from mining, at least for a few decades, and he helped stop a plan to make the Mediterranean a dumping ground for radioactive waste. Clearly brilliant, Jacques Cousteau was a role model for anyone who believes that it's her, or his, duty to make a positive difference in the world, and to stand up — as Cousteau did — for "the rights of future generations."

"Becoming Cousteau" is available to stream today on Disney+

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.