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‘Becoming Cousteau’ sings an ode to the ocean explorer and his 20th-century climate warnings

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

Jacques Cousteau was a man ahead of his time in multiple respects, which provides the backbone of “Becoming Cousteau,” a documentary devoted to both the ocean explorer’s life and his early environmental advocacy. Brought to life by his own words and appearances, the film touches on various themes while letting its lovely images and music wash over you.

Cousteau discovered the ocean at a relatively early age, before recognizing its possibilities as “a huge and completely untouched domain to explore.” That spirit of adventure eventually led him to become “an inventor by necessity,” creating the Aqua-Lung to facilitate deeper and deeper dives.

Director Liz Garbus illustrates how filmmaking and media transformed the French explorer into an international figure and celebrity synonymous with the seas, first via his films (which he objected to being labeled “documentaries,” preferring “true adventures”) and later “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” a hugely popular ABC franchise in the 1960s and ’70s championed by the pioneering producer David L. Wolper.

Amid the contradictions in his career, Cousteau accepted sponsorships from energy companies and mapped the ocean for them, before becoming a passionate environmental advocate, which included promoting the first Earth Day in 1970, after seeing pristine environs he visited already beginning to fade and suffer.

In a telling point, his darkening view of the planet’s future bled into his TV shows, so much so that ABC felt the dour tone was sinking the “Undersea World’s” ratings.

“Becoming Cousteau” is shallower in terms of its subject’s personal life, touching upon his relationship with wife Simone — a major player in his work who preferred staying off camera — and bringing his sons into the operation, including the devastating impact of son Philippe’s death in a plane crash in 1979.

Cousteau remarried almost immediately after his wife died, remaining a passionate advocate for the oceans and environment until his death in 1997.

For those too young to remember, the film captures how greatly admired Cousteau was in his time, as he fields questions from school children, while rekindling the thrill and impact of his TV documentaries (or “true adventures”) before there were whole channels devoted to bringing such fare into living rooms.

“I am miserable out of the water,” Cousteau muses early in the film, with some of his writings read by actor Vincent Cassel.

Presented by National Geographic, “Becoming Cousteau” benefits from the sense that his warnings are timelier than ever, having too often gone unheeded while he walked the Earth and ventured beneath the waves.

“For though we are strangers in your silent world, to live on the land we must learn from the sea,” John Denver wrote in his musical ode to Cousteau and his crew, “Calypso.” Garbus lays out what Cousteau sought to teach us. What we have learned might be another matter.

“Becoming Cousteau” will premiere in select theaters on Oct. 22.

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