Jacques-Yves Cousteau had one of those faces that seemed to come from an earlier time — before the world wars, maybe even before the 20th century. It was a face so thin and tapered yet open, so creased with character, so French. The hawkish Gallic nose. The Aznavour eyes. The big wide stretchy geek smile that seemed to grin back at the entire world. (By the late ’60s, he was doing just that.) Cousteau didn’t just popularize undersea diving as we know it; he created it. To accomplish what he did, he needed to be an athlete, a scientist, an inventor, an adventurer, a filmmaker, and a sea-dog ringleader. Somehow he was a man who fit each of those roles. Standing aboard his American-made vessel, the Calypso, in his red wool cap and bathing suit, surrounded by a crew of devoted French roughnecks, he looked too skinny to be a mere jock, too earthy to be a professor, too worldly to hide himself away when the cameras were rolling. More than just an explorer of the ocean’s mysteries, he became our ambassador to the sea, the one who took us under for the ride.
“Becoming Cousteau,” Liz Garbus’s ardent and transporting documentary, is one of those movies that puts a life together so beautifully that you feel it heightening your awareness of everyday things. You may go into it thinking you already know a lot about the subject. Like many people of a certain age, I grew up watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” the ’60s TV documentary series that made Cousteau a household name. But the movie, as its title suggests, takes a deep dive into Cousteau way before he knew what he was onto. Born in 1910, he joined the French Navy and was fixated on becoming a pilot. It was a stroke of fate — a car accident — that led him to the water. He sustained enough skeletal injury to nix the possibility of becoming a military pilot, but two comrades said they would rehabilitate him with ocean therapy.
Snorkeling was big, but Cousteau, diving with Philippe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, wanted to go deeper. “Diving is the most fabulous distraction you can experience,” he says in the quote that opens the film. (His words are read by the actor Vincent Cassel.) “I am miserable out of the water. It’s as though you have been introduced to heaven, and then forced back to Earth.” We see a good deal of footage of Cousteau from the ’30s and ’40s (he dove all through WWII), and some crude black-and-white undersea footage as well. He and his two comrades started out as glorified spear-fishers — they keep emerging from the depths with exotic fish at the end of their spikes, as if that was their goal. It was Cousteau’s inspiration to invent the aqualung, though as Garbus shows us in a series of historical drawings, going back to an extraordinary sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, the dream of going underwater with a breathing apparatus was centuries old. Cousteau didn’t want to do it with tubes or pipes. He wanted to be free of the surface.
It was a utopian vision. Cousteau and his comrades were taking dives of 50 meters, until Maurice Fargues, a diver with the French Navy, became the first man to attempt a dive of 100 meters. He died while doing it; we see disquieting footage of the calamity. Yet the Cousteau crew swam on.
Cousteau had been making amateur movies since he was a kid, and he was nearly as passionate about filmmaking as he was about diving. He grasped that they were made to go together. From the start, he and his companions recorded their adventures, and when they got the funding to make “The Silent World” (Cousteau won over his backers using fake storyboards), it was planned as a major production. We see this seminal film being shot, with multiple divers in the water holding lights and cameras. It premiered at Cannes in 1956, where, astoundingly, it won the Palme d’Or. Garbus shows us Picasso arriving for the screening, and he thought the film was amazing — according to “Becoming Cousteau,” it introduced him to the colors of the deep sea. “The Silent World” went on to win the Oscar for best documentary, and it became a huge success. But Cousteau still needed funds to keep the Calypso afloat, which is why he signed contracts to do explorations for the oil industry. (Abu Dhabi owes its oil wealth to him.)
The film’s fixation on life aboard the Calypso, and Cousteau’s burgeoning celebrity, mirrors its subject. Cousteau’s wife, the spiky, chain-smoking Simone (who came from a line of admirals), also wanted to live at sea, and essentially did, as the one woman aboard the ship. They sent their two sons to boarding school, and Cousteau confesses that he was a bad husband and father. The film doesn’t dwell on his infidelities but asks us to read between the lines. I think it was right to downplay the gossip angle, because it allows “Becoming Cousteau” to turn into a portrait of the consuming nature of explorers. As Cousteau put it, “We must go and see for ourselves.”
Too many movies these days, including documentaries, are too long. Liz Garbus is a great documentarian, but part of her mastery is that she makes every piece of film — the archival clips, the interviews — speak; that’s why she doesn’t have to overload you. In “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” Garbus told Nina Simone’s complicated story — the classical youth, the high-priestess-of-soul glory, the grinding tours and bad marriages, the unstable behavior, the fearless activism, the expatriate years, the comeback, the incredible musical performances that ran through it — and packed it all into a little over 90 minutes. “Becoming Cousteau” is 93 minutes long, but it lets us live, at every moment, alongside Jacques Cousteau, reveling in his addiction to the experience of being underwater, sharing his profound distress when he learns that the oceans he loves are decaying, and maybe even dying.
The last third of the film is devoted to the environmental passion that took over Cousteau’s life. As he saw it, this wasn’t just a matter of “saving the oceans” — the coral reefs he saw disintegrating, the floor of the continental shelf that became, over the 30 years of his explorations, a burnt-out shadow of itself. The oceans, as Cousteau grasped before so many others did, were already a sign that the planet was out of balance, that the warming of it was (and is) a slow-motion disaster. We see Cousteau at the 1992 climate summit in Rio, where he was the one major presence who was not a head of state, and where he all but singlehandedly got dozens of countries to agree to put the brakes on the industrialization of Antarctica.
I have seen many environmental documentaries, but in “Becoming Cousteau” there’s something uniquely moving about Jacques Cousteau’s mission to rescue the ocean. In the late ’50s and ’60s, when his explorations echoed the rise of the space program, there were popular fantasies that both spheres — the deep sea and outer space — could provide human beings with alternate places to live. Those ideas fell out of fashion (they were never really practical), but what’s remarkable now is how they were predicated on the dystopian vision: that the human race would need to escape what it was doing to earth. “Becoming Cousteau” lives up to its title; it shows you the evolution of Jacques Cousteau becoming an entertainer-adventurer. But what’s most resonant about the film is it then shows you what he became — a man who fell in love with life underwater, but allowed his heart to break seeing what had happened to the heart of the ocean.