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Thursday, September 29, 2022

Review of “Stav Cousteau”: The Old Man and the Sea

Jacques-Yves Cousteau died in 1997, and it may be difficult for people who came of age in subsequent years to understand the extent of his fame or even recognize the category of celebrities to which he belonged.

A former French naval officer with an unquenchable love of the sea, he combined the aspirations of an old-fashioned adventurer with the technocratic discipline of the early astronauts. He was an inventor as well as an explorer, filmmaker who became an environmentalist and, thanks to his natural charisma and his trademark red watch cap, became an established figure in pop culture.

Becoming Cousteau, the new National Geographic documentary by Liz Garbus, successfully restores some of Cousteau’s brilliance and relevance. It is a dynamic, detailed biography that follows a life that has been long, eventful, and riddled with tragedy and regret.

The archival footage is breathtaking, whether tracking coral reefs and schools of fish, or viewing the remarkable history of French men’s swimwear. Cousteau’s ship, a decommissioned minesweeper called the Calypso, looks like a place of unbridled, macho high spirits – Simone Cousteau, the captain’s wife, insisted on being the only woman on board – and rigorous scientific research.

But Garbus (whose recent documentaries include Love, Marilyn and What Happened, Miss Simone?) Wants more than keen nostalgia or a lost sense of surprise. The story of Cousteau as she tells it – with the help of a narrative taken from interviews with colleagues and children of Cousteau, as well as audio recordings of the person himself – about the awakening of his conscience, about how his fascination with the oceans of the Earth turned into a crusade for good … save them.

From a present perspective, it seems intuitive that someone dedicated to exploring the oceans will also be committed to preserving them. “Becoming Cousteau” presupposes something exactly the opposite. In the annals of human research, curiosity often becomes a prelude to conquest and a means of achieving it. So it was, at least at first, with Cousteau.

After injuries in a car accident ruined his dream of becoming a pilot, Cousteau turned to spearfishing off the French Mediterranean coast. Together with his friends Philippe Tailier and Frederic Dumas, he developed new diving techniques and breathing apparatus that opened up new horizons.

After World War II, his ambitions expanded. The Silent World, a 1956 Cousteau feature film that won both the Palme d’Or in Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Documentary, offered “an hour and twenty-six minutes of pictorial (and fishy) thrill,” according to The New York Times Critic. Like many researchers, Cousteau viewed this newly mapped world as an object that could be exploited and even colonized. He was looking forward to the emergence of permanent underwater human settlements and the emergence of “homo aquaticus” – a new type of man, accustomed to life in the water.

He also accepted money and commissions from the oil industry, which sought to find offshore sources of oil. Much of Cousteau’s later activities have been outright repentance for this work and for his role in accelerating the pollution of the oceans that he cherished. Its environmental warnings were forward-looking and costly. American television executives stopped broadcasting his documentaries, finding them too “dark”, “harsh” and “cynical.”

Garbus’s film takes into account the personal losses that darkened Cousteau’s later years, including the deaths of Simone and their son Philip. But like most documentaries about environmental and social issues, as well as famous and respected people, it emphasizes the positive.

Cousteau is an inspiring example of passion for a noble cause, becoming an ambassador on behalf of besieged and fragile ecosystems. He is optimistic, even though in the 1980s and 90s he worried that it might be too late to save whales, corals, glaciers and fish. Become Cousteau clings to this optimism, perhaps because the alternative is too disturbing to ponder.

Become Cousteau
Rating PG-13 for Personal Tragedy, Environmental Hazard and Smoking. The duration of the performance is 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.

World Nation News Desk
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