A deep dive into the life and world of iconic explorer, inventor, conservationist and filmmaker Jaques-Yves Cousteau, Becoming Cousteau is the latest documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Liz Garbus. Much like the seas to which Cousteau dedicated his life, there’s a lot going on just below the film’s surface. It’s a celebration of one man’s tremendous accomplishments, but it’s also a work that draws particular attention to the urgent need to protect our oceans and, more interestingly, how Cousteau’s own perspective helped to kickstart this battle. Unfortunately, however, the disorganised structure frequently gets in the way of the central message.
As a biopic, Cousteau is packed with content. From his early days as a diver and inventor to his later life as a pioneering activist, the adventurer’s exceptional life and legacy makes for an intriguing story in itself. But his personal life never stays the focus for long; Garbus’s newest project is more concerned with telling the origin story of the current climate crisis. And with COP26 dominating headlines, the documentary’s arrival couldn’t be timelier.
Moreover, this environmental rallying cry is made all the more poignant by framing it through Cousteau’s changing attitude towards the water. At one point in his early explorations, we see him and his crew killing fish with dynamite so they can count them. Later, viewers will watch in horror as Cousteau’s crew brutally beat sharks to death, and will even be shocked to learn that they were the ones who helped find Saudi Arabia’s oil. ‘We just didn’t know any better’ explains a voiceover, and that’s true. So much about how we understand our relationship with the environment has changed since Cousteau first set sail in the Calypso, and nobody understood this more clearly than he did.
Becoming Cousteau holds a message that’s as powerful (if not more) now than it was decades ago. It’s therefore somewhat frustrating that it’s muddied by a messy structure. By choosing to tackle events chronologically, viewers can see the evolution in Cousteau’s outlook. However, these sections are separated by prolonged sequences dealing with other chapters in the subject’s life. The bigger picture only comes into view once all the pieces have been revealed.
Becoming Cousteau is released in select cinemas on 12th November 2021.
Watch the trailer for Becoming Cousteau here: