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An Icon Goes From Explorer to Environmentalist in “Becoming Cousteau” (Review)

There was a time in the not-so-distant past where it seemed like the entire world was transfixed by French explorer and captain, Jacques Cousteau.

Sailing on his ship Calypso, Cousteau and his team became famous with a network series called “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” that ran for a decade (and was followed by a public television series for many years after as well).

Director Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?“) takes us back to his earliest days that turned him into the tireless environmentalist that he became.

After running out of funds for his research vessel, he took money from oil companies to dive for them. I was blown away to learn that his team discovered all of the oil underwater off the coast of Abu Dhabi while working for BP in the early 1950s and that changed the country’s fortunes forever.

Working for these oil companies helped to pay the bills, but also opened his eyes to how these massive conglomerates were destroying habitats and the ocean life below. This began his pioneering shift to conservationist, launching The Cousteau Society in 1973 to begin fighting for endangered species, clean water, and to bring awareness of climate change.

By the sheer virtue of producing television shows and movies for decades that chronicled his every professional move, there is endless footage available to be used for this film, but Garbus also enlisted actor Vincent Cassel to narrate Cousteau’s journal entries for added personal perspective.

Garbus doesn’t shy away from showing the more complicated side of Cousteau – he was so consumed by this passion for underwater life that (by his own admission) he wasn’t the greatest father or husband.

Fair warning: there is also some shocking footage of animal cruelty early on featuring a scene from the 1956 documentary “The Silent World.” It is juxtaposed with talk show footage from many years later of Cousteau apologizing for it and speaking to why he pulled the Academy Award-winning film out of circulation.

Packed with outstanding and unflinching archival footage of a great adventurer, “Becoming Cousteau” shows us how one man’s passion helped to change the world.

Becoming Cousteau” was nominated this week for five Critics Choice Documentary Awards is now playing in select theaters nationwide.