To a generation, Jacques Cousteau was the man who first uncovered the world beneath the waves. An inspiration to anyone who has dreamed of exploring the depths, he has surprisingly few major films about him, although Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a self-confessed homage. Liz Garbus, director of the excellent What Happened, Miss Simone?, seeks to rectify that with biography Becoming Cousteau.
Told through archive footage, interviews and dramatic narration, this is the story of Cousteau’s life. A car accident cuts his career as a pilot short, allowing him to pursue his passion of underwater exploration. This grows as necessity leads him to invent the Aqua-Lung, and talk about his findings in books, films, and television, the latter of which makes him a star in America. The film also looks at how findings made him an early climate change activist, seeing the beginnings of a problem the world now knows all too well.
The film is made by the Discovery network, and at times feels like it follows their familiar format. The storytelling is a linear, chapter-by-chapter account of his life that won’t win any awards for ingenuity, but may do so for grace. It has the benefit of a wealth of footage made by a master filmmaker, that would be glorious to look at even if there was nothing but the movie’s dreamy, playful soundtrack.
Happily, Garbus does build on that beautiful canvas. She reveals a man whose skills as a director are slightly underrated by history. Cousteau won the 1956 Palme D’Or at Cannes for his film The Silent World, and viewed his work as “real adventure stories” rather than documentaries. Looking at the footage now, with the knowledge of what it would inspire, it’s fascinating to see a man whose life was so exciting, being a master of cinema was just one of his many skills.
There is also a timely point made about his campaigning for climate awareness. Cousteau unwittingly facilitated some of this problem, funding his research by conducting surveys for oil companies before anyone really knew the damage fossil fuels could do. He then spent much of his life being both the man that introduced millions to sea life, and the one warning of how easily it could all be lost.
Cousteau disliked his films being called documentaries, which he described as “a lecture from someone who knows more than you”. Being Cousteau might be conventional in its storytelling at times, but captures enough of the adventure that was his life to do the great man justice.
Becoming Cousteau is in cinemas from 12th November