Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King
By Brad Matsen (PANTHEON, $28)
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By the end of his life, Jacques Cousteau seemed a caricature of himself. The red cap, the thick accentthe Cousteau aesthetic was so overripe that director Wes Anderson used it as the template for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But this month, Brad Matsen reminds us that Cousteau earned his fame honestly: He invented the modern understanding of the sea. Matsen, an ocean writer and film producer, proves himself a master of biography on his first try. Born in 1911 to a landed family in a village far from the coast of France, Jacques-Yves Cousteau discovered his love for the sea as a naval officer. He wanted to be a filmmaker, and many of his innovations were driven by a desire to take his cameras into the deep. Thus his creation of the underwater movie (1938), a scuba tank and regulator (1940s), and the wildlife TV show The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1966). He was no saint: Matsen deals with his dalliances (the guy kept a second, secret, family), the callousness he showed his sons (he sued Jean-Michel over his use of the family name), and the ever-present tension between science and showmanship. But The Sea King never loses sight of Cousteau’s accomplishments. “Everything seemed like playing to him,” Jean-Michel once remarked. And it was. For centuries, the romance of the sailor’s life had been extolled in poem and song. Cousteau showed us that things were far more alluring under the ship.