In the beguiling Nat Geo documentary Becoming Cousteau, famed French sea captain (and man responsible for the creation of twee) Jacques Cousteau becomes an interloper within his own story.
Expanding on several decades worth of Cousteau’s seafaring antics, a visual feast captured through archival footage in all its celluloid glory, director Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) constructs a potent exploration of an individual reckoning with self-regret.
You’d be hard-pressed defining Cousteau’s career with fewer than three monikers: activist, futurist, filmmaker (just don’t say documentarian). Through Garbus’ deft gaze, we witness Cousteau from his younger days journeying the oceans, the imagery of which belongs on a Wes Anderson mood board, to his later life operating as an environmental activist working to undo the damage brought on by his thalassic adventures.
What begins as bright and summery nautical hijinks, brimming with all the buzzing energy of a soft-drink commercial, transforms into Cousteau’s ideological reawakening. Garbus applies inviting visuals to express the jubilance of a young and intrigued Cousteau. Only when Cousteau’s immense affinity for the ocean is established does the romanticism stop, with Garbus, impeccably, setting-up a mercurial shift in tone that grapples with the grim consequences brought on by Cousteau’s unbridled curiosity.
There is a level of self-awareness in Garbus’ direction that smartly dovetails away from defining Cousteau as a model human being. His shortcomings, depicted through his familial absenteeism and the impact his popularity had on the ocean by way of pollution and global warming, are on full display, with the film ardently denoting the seriousness of climate change and the ongoing conservational inaction from big business and politicians.
Alas, there is more to take from Becoming Cousteau outside of its environmental evangelism. It isn’t so much about ignoring the mistakes of the past, but possessing the willingness to evolve from them.