2017, NR, 90 min. Directed by Brett Morgen.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Nov. 3, 2017
In 1960, the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey sent his then-secretary, Jane Goodall, to the wilds of the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, Africa, to study the behavior of chimpanzees. With no formal training, and, more importantly, no scientific bias, Goodall arrives to patiently observe the chimps and document their behavior. Her early dispatches to Leakey confirmed what he had theorized all along, that chimpanzees were not too far away from their cousin Man: They were social beings, who loved, were jealous, and displayed a range of emotion. In the early Sixties, this was a radical thought in the anthropology community, and Goodall went on to become a titan who revolutionized the world’s understanding of primates.
Brett Morgen (Kobain: Montage of Heck) was given access to around 100 hours of previously unseen footage, shot by Goodall’s (future) husband Hugo van Lawick, an acclaimed wildlife photographer/filmmaker, dispatched by National Geographic to film her studying the chimpanzees. The footage is stunning, and Morgen makes good use of it. Here is Goodall, often barefoot, but sometimes in Converse All-Stars, navigating the gorgeous landscape of the hills and valleys of Tanzania, patiently observing, and slowly, oh so slowly, gaining the trust of a community of chimps. Once they recognize her as an equal, she becomes part of their world, and her life is forever changed.
Using the aforementioned footage, supplemented by interviews and a voiceover by Goodall herself, Jane charts the life of the famous anthropologist. She and van Lawick marry, and eventually have a son, awesomely named Grub, but domestic and administrative duties soon pull her away from her beloved Gombe. Morgen has crafted a mesmerizing portrait of a fierce iconoclast who defied gender bias and forged her own path to an understanding of the natural world that transformed scientific thinking in the last century. If I have one quibble, it is that the soundtrack by Philip Glass was a bit too propulsive and overbearing at times, always heightening events when it seemed they needed some time to breathe. One of the most immersive and intimate documentaries on Goodall, Jane is a triumph of filmmaking, and essential viewing for humans.