Becoming Cousteau: Washed, by David Bax
In Liz Garbus’ new Jacques Cousteau doc, the man in question is heard to say that he never wanted to think of himself as a documentarian because, to him, a documentary was just “a lecture by a guy who knows more than you.” Becoming Cousteau might not be a lecture, exactly, but the level of boredom Cousteau was suggesting with that description very much applies. Biographical documentaries are so thick on the digital ground of the endless streaming service landscape that one can hardly browse their way through them. And the format is getting staler by the hour.
As is usually the case with these movies, Garbus makes some attempt to spruce things up with fun stuff. Early on, for instance, we get some rotoscoped fish swimming around the frame. But these lighthearted touches are not enough to distract from the fact that Becoming Cousteau is essentially a 10,000 word magazine article committed to video.
That article is structured around Cousteau’s evolution into the environmental activist he was known as by the time he died in 1997. His early days of underwater exploration had very much the opposite shading to them. We see him speak of the ocean as if it is something just waiting to be conquered and occupied by mankind. Plus, there’s oil down there! One of Becoming Cousteau‘s more intriguing asides is the early relationship between Cousteau and the governments of oil-rich Persian Gulf nations. But, the more time he spent down beneath the waves, the more he came to see the devastating effects humanity has had on the deep sea ecosystem. His series of television specials became more and more foreboding until they were canceled.
Those specials (collectively called The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau) and the various documentaries he made previous to them solidify the most interesting thing about Cousteau, that he saw himself as a filmmaker more than an explorer or the captain of a boat. To the uninitiated like me, it will be a shock to learn that Cousteau’s award-winning 1956 film The Silent World was co-directed by Louis Malle.
It’s hard to fault Garbus or anyone else for wanting to advocate for environmental issues; climate change remains an existential threat. But Cousteau’s passion for and facility with a movie camera–and the resulting payload of footage that exists–forced me to shake my head at how doggedly uncinematic Becoming Cousteau is.