Becoming Cousteau (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Meet Jacques Cousteau

Documentary film “Becoming Cousteau”, which is currently available on Disney+ here in South Korea, looks into the life and career of Jacques Cousteau, a famous French marine explorer who brought considerable innovation into marine exploration in addition to making those memorable documentary films about the endless wonder of oceans and sea creatures. Besides informing us a lot on his life and career via its skillful mix of various archival materials, the documentary also works as a vivid and intimate human portrayal to engage and touch us, and you will be certainly moved by how he kept going even during the last chapter of his life.

At first, the documentary shows and tells us about how Cousteau became interested in diving during his early years. Around the time when he joined the French Navy, young Cousteau aspired to be a pilot someday, but his aspiration was subsequently dashed because of an unfortunate car accident. As recovering after that accident, he came to try diving as a part of healing process, and, what do you know, he became quite passionate about not only diving but also exploring underwater world.

During the late 1930s, he and his two colleagues gained considerable reputation as “three diving musketeers” as frequently diving together in the beach areas of Southern France, but their enthusiastic diving activities were soon suspended as the World War II was started in 1939 and then their country was occupied by the Nazi Germany in the following year. Once the war was over in 1945, Cousteau and his colleagues resumed their marine exploration, and that led to a number of crucial technological developments including the first open-circuit, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus for divers. Thanks to this invention, they could explore underwater world more easily than before, and they also could record their explorations via their special waterproof cameras.

During the 1950s, Cousteau’s marine exploration reached to the peak as he and his team members sailed around here and there in the world via their old British minesweeper ship. Cousteau frequently filmed a lot of their marine exploration during that time, and that led to his ground-breaking documentary film “The Silent World” (1956). When the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, it was a huge critical success besides winning the Palme d’Or award, and he became all the more famous around the world when the documentary subsequently garnered the first Oscar for him (He later won two more Oscars, by the way).

Not long after that, Cousteau was approached by several American TV broadcasting companies, and that eventually led to his classic TV documentary series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”. From 1968 until 1976, he and his teams brought their awesome marine explorations into the homes of millions of people around the world, and that certainly boosted his fame and reputation in public.

However, around that point, Cousteau became more aware of the growing environmental crisis in the global world, and he also came to discern some undeniable errors of his marine explorations. Sure, he was simply curious and passionate about underwater world, but many of his marine explorations happened to be financed by those big oil companies, who have always been one of the major reasons behind the marine pollution around the world. Realizing how his marine explorations were a part of the problem, Cousteau could not help but feel bitter about his achievements, and he became more despaired when one of his two sons, who was as passionate about marine exploration as his father, died due to a plane crash incident.

Nevertheless, Cousteau did not resort to despair and misery at all. As becoming a passionate environment activist, he established a global non-profit organization for spreading environmental messages more around the world, and he actually achieved several important things in the process. Via his fame and reputation, he made many leading politicians around the world listen to him, and he was actually invited to the United Nations’ International Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.

The documentary skillfully shuffles a bunch of numerous archival records and footage clips, and the resulting collage is commendable on the whole. While we get close glimpses into Cousteau’s marine explorations, we also get to know more about Cousteau as a human being with some glaring flaws. As frequently occupied with his professional passion, he was not a very good father to both of his two sons, and he was not so faithful to his first wife either. For many years, he remained quite close to a woman who would eventually become his second wife later, but he never left his first wife till her death, and she had no problem with that because, as the daughter of a seaman family, she was happy to manage his ship and its crew.

Overall, “Becoming Cousteau” is engaging in addition to being fairly informative, and director/co-producer Liz Garbus, who previously directed “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (2015) and “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (2020), handles her human subject with enough care and respect. I wish it showed more of his life and career, but the documentary did a good job of summarizing his life and career on the whole, so I will not grumble for now.

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