Luck and learning turned diver into environmental hero

Jacques Cousteau wears his trademark red cap aboard the Calypso during the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of the Cousteau Society)

By Richard Ades

Becoming Cousteau, Liz Garbus’s biographical documentary about the late Jacques Cousteau, is aptly named.

Though Cousteau was one of the first luminaries to sound the alarm about mankind’s ongoing destruction of the environment—particularly the watery environment that covers most of our planet—he was not born with this level of enlightenment. He was not even that interested in the ocean, Garbus reveals, as he entered the French naval academy at the age of 20 only for the chance to become an aviator. But then fate sent his life in a new direction.

After being involved in a traffic accident that nearly killed him, we learn, Cousteau was forced to give up his previous plans and turn to the ocean for refuge. With a couple of companions, he began “free diving” (i.e., without auxiliary aids) as a way to recover his muscle strength. Even after Germany invaded France during World War II, his devotion to the sea kept growing, to the extent that he was soon planning to build a career around his new love.  

At first, Cousteau hoped to earn money by conducting salvage operations on sunken ships and downed planes with the aid of diving equipment that he was working to perfect. Then, in 1951, he acquired the converted mine sweeper known as the Calypso and began his new life as an ocean-going explorer.

It was during these early years at sea, Garbus tells us, that Cousteau committed acts he later came to regret after becoming more environmentally sensitive. In order to catalog local fish populations, for example, he and his crew dynamited off-shore waters without regard for the damage it would cause to fragile habitats. Perhaps worst of all, they bankrolled their exploits by helping a British drilling company locate underwater oil deposits in the Persian Gulf.

Fortunately, Cousteau eventually found a safer meal ticket in the form of his long-running TV series The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau. The series helped to pay for Cousteau’s worldwide explorations and, at the same time, gave him a bully pulpit to express his growing concerns about the damage being done to the sea by industrialized society and its waste products.

The documentary depicts all of this with the help of the miles and miles of film Cousteau shot throughout his career. At the same time, it doesn’t neglect his family life—such as it was.

Sons Jean-Michel and Philippe often were sent away to boarding school while Cousteau and his wife, Simone, roamed the seas on the Calypso. Even so, both sons took an interest in their father’s work, particularly the adventure-craving Philippe. As a result, Cousteau assumed he would one day be able to allow the younger generation to take it over, and he was devastated when tragedy disrupted his plans.

Producer-director Garbus has won awards and nominations in both documentary and scripted categories. With this National Geographic Documentary Films production, she succeeds in turning a 20th century icon into a human being who took a long, watery path to becoming an environmental prophet. It’s a compelling journey.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Becoming Cousteau (PG-13) can be seen at select theaters, including Central Ohio’s Marcus Crosswoods Cinema 17 and AMC Dine-In Easton Town Center 30.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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