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TV Review : Cousteau the Man Missing in '85 Years'


Jacques-Yves Cousteau is a man of works, but he is also a man. In the strangely pallid TBS tribute to the oceanographer-filmmaker, "Jacques-Yves Cousteau: My First 85 Years," the works are all on display. The man remains opaque.

Did you know, for instance, that one of Cousteau's heroes is the great British mind Bertrand Russell? Or that his filmmaking philosophy is that a film record has a chance to outlive the filmmaker, and thus cheat death? These choice nuggets aren't in the program, but in the accompanying press materials. Why?

"My First 85 Years" would have been an ideal chance to plumb into Cousteau's inquisitive mind, to connect his passions for future generations and ocean ecology with his own life. Instead, we get a scattershot, clumsily assembled series of Cousteau career highlights that don't even flow chronologically.

Somnambulantly narrated by Charlotte Rampling (Charlotte Rampling?!), this account of Cousteau's ocean treks is neither ideal for a first-time viewer of cinema de Cousteau nor for fans who have watched his past adventures.

In one five-minute stretch, we watch Cousteau and his crew on the Calypso jump from the Amazon to the Mississippi to the Great Lakes to the Florida Everglades without quite understanding what they're doing, except filming some cool nature footage. It's like being shown a great man's photo album by a frantic host who's madly flipping through the pages without pausing for a breath.

If there's any theme that emerges from this unfortunate mess, it's Cousteau's dogged efforts to refine technology for underwater exploration. From his earliest attempts at the aqua-lung device for swimming in deep-sea water to the latest generation of turbine-powered craft and the new ship, Calypso II, Cousteau's work has broken the water-pressure barrier in our ability to reach a kind of inner space.

The efforts pay off with montage after montage of eerie, spectacular scenes of sea life. (Shots of his crew swimming inside Antarctic icebergs visually defy time and space.) When Cousteau takes over the narration chores during these moments, he sounds as astonished now as when he first discovered these ocean reaches. For these moments, we get a hint of the man behind the global mission.

* "Jacques-Yves Cousteau: My First 85 Years" airs at 6 p.m. Sunday and again at 10:05 p.m. Monday on TBS.

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