'Becoming Cousteau' and the Origin of a Legacy

Liz Garbus' documentary on the life of Jacques Cousteau is more about the present and the future than the past.

Becoming Cousteau
National Geographic Documentary Films

Which is more important to a biography, the events of the subject’s life or the legacy of their accomplishments? Becoming Cousteau presents a chronological look at Jacques Cousteau’s 87 years on Earth, much of it on or under the water, but ultimately the film seems to be interested in the state of the world since he took his final breath.

On the surface, the documentary is perfectly put together. Visually, it consists entirely of archival footage, adding to a trend that I’m totally appreciating these days. There are newly recorded interviews offering commentary about Cousteau’s life and work, but they’re relegated to audio tracks rather than appearing on-screen as talking heads.

Ironically, however, the problem that talking heads would have created for Becoming Cousteau — interruption of the fluid narrative with an explicit sense of reflection — is still felt in the approach of the film. This can be argued with any documentary, but this one, in particular, could be said to be more about the views of its filmmakers than of its subject.

Liz Garbus, the director of Becoming Cousteau, has made, along with writer Mark Monroe and writer/editor Pax Wassermann, a film that eventually lives in the present. Despite the fact that Cousteau died 24 years ago. This makes sense, as it was made now and one can’t ignore such context any more than a documentarian can ignore their own personal influence on a project regardless of whatever attempt is made to be objective.

When watching any biographical film about a deceased person, you have to wonder about the motives in the decision to tell this story today (or whenever it was produced). Is Becoming Cousteau simply intending to educate viewers about a pioneer in the fields of diving, oceanography, filmmaking, and conservation? Or is it really a film just concerned with climate change and other environmental issues from our present perspective?

Documentaries can be more than one thing, of course. Becoming Cousteau is a biography as well as an issue film plus a promotion of The Cousteau Society (which in turn is heavily promoting the documentary to any visitors to its website). Whichever of these comes across as dominant may be up to the audience. I tend to consider all possible interpretations and often play devil’s advocate in my head and sometimes in my writing.

Here’s why the concept of legacy in the case of Jacques Cousteau is especially curious: he changed his tune a lot throughout his life. Well, that’s how Becoming Cousteau portrays him anyway. Much like Valerie Taylor, the subject of this year’s other biographical documentary about a sea-diving icon, Playing with Sharks (a great film to pair with this one), Cousteau evolved in his thinking about the world, and that led to him having regrets.

“We all have changed. Mentality has changed. And we couldn’t handle the shark in the same way today.” – Jacques Cousteau in 1971, discussing a scene from his 1956 film ‘The Silent World’

Both Taylor and Cousteau began their careers at a time when ocean life and conservation of the sea weren’t on anyone’s minds. Sharks were regarded as beasts that deserved slaughter. Ecosystems beneath the waves weren’t considered at all. The oceans were so massive that they seemed impervious to harm by pollutants. Cousteau specifically also dealt with remorse over aiding in the plans for offshore drilling in the Persian Gulf.

The difference between Taylor and Cousteau is that Taylor is still alive and an active participant in the film about her life. Whatever beliefs about the world and particularly about ocean life she would represent in the documentary are up to date. Cousteau doesn’t have that luxury. Everything about him and his legacy is based on what he thought and did at the end of his life in the 1990s, now exhibited by filmmakers and to audiences within a 2020s frame of reference. There is so much he never got to see or know, that we have.

Would Cousteau have changed even more in the last quarter-century had he lived longer? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely that he would have evolved — or devolved, depending on your stance — to become a climate change denier or at least less of an alarmist when it comes to the planet’s future. The science he followed has continued on the same path, and he probably would have done the same.

“I feel responsible. I feel guilty … that we are drawing blank checks on future generations. We don’t pay. They are going to pay.” – Jacques Cousteau in 1981

Still, the distance between the time of his death and the time of the making of this documentary is worth contemplating per the idea that a person’s posthumous legacy is based on where they were in the end. Where they left off, as it were. Never mind what your final actions and atonements do for your soul in the afterlife. Understand that your last deeds also matter for what you leave behind, here on Earth and in the memories of the people who are still alive and yet to be born.

When it comes to documentaries like Becoming Cousteau, the ending is also a big part of what we come away with. Sure, the 90 minutes of biographical storytelling leading up to that point is as enjoyable and enlightening as can be on its own and for its own sake. But the destination and conclusion matter more significantly.

Here, that consists of notes about The Cousteau Society carrying Cousteau’s legacy into the 21st century (of which 20 percent has already passed) and how the Antarctic Treaty comes up for renewal in 27 years (interesting that we’re nearly at the midpoint of time between Cousteau’s death and that important moment). Texts like these are often tacked on and aren’t always the director’s decision, but regardless they are a film’s last word.

And upon deeper examination of Becoming Cousteau, and with additional viewings, the film plays like a message for the present and the future more than a story about the past. It’s aimed at younger viewers who will be around in 2048 and who could, now, be urged to become pro-active (a la Greta Thunberg) in saving the world before it’s too late.

Maybe the key to the film is in the title all along. Becoming Cousteau is about how Cousteau became the person that he was, in a sense of completion, at the end of his life. And to that effect, it’s about Cousteau’s legacy in terms of it being about what he remains being, and what he means, from the end of his life onward.

That isn’t to say that Cousteau has become merely an idea of a person, existing solely as a legacy over the last 24 years. That film, if anyone were to make it, would consist only of footage shot after 1997 and focus more on the interviewees commenting on Cousteau as well as on the ongoing work of The Cousteau Society since its namesake’s death.

Yet for all the concentration on archival material showcasing Cousteau when he was alive — plus his words written when he was alive now spoken, in character, by actor Vincent CassellBecoming Cousteau is indeed a reflective portrait more than a plain and pure experience of a life. And it’s all the better for it. Or at least more stimulating.

Becoming Cousteau is now streaming on Disney+. 

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.