If it seems as though Jane Goodall has always been out there, doing her thing with chimpanzees, she pretty much has: Since 1960, she has been either in Africa studying apes or traveling the world talking about them. She’s like a lighthouse that’s constantly on, even if you’re not always thinking about it. Famous for most of that time, she doesn’t need another documentary about her, but Jane (2017 Best Documentary winner from the Broadcast Film Critics Association) is a fascinating treat. It re-purposes a batch of 1960s footage long considered lost, and looks back from Goodall’s current perspective at age 83.
The misplaced footage was originally shot by Hugo van Lawick, a wildlife photographer assigned by National Geographic to document Goodall’s work at her compound on the Gombe Stream in 1963. The early part of Jane uses some of this gorgeous footage to illustrate the story of Goodall’s first experiences with the chimps (a sort of dramatic re-creation). We only learn later that it was shot by van Lawick and that he and Goodall subsequently married; this explains why the treatment of Goodall is so rapturous—it’s one of those classic examples of a filmmaker falling for his subject through the lens.
Jane director Brett Morgen (who did the classic Hollywood documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture about notorious producer Robert Evans) is equally smitten. This isn’t a probing, critical piece of journalism—for one thing, as with so many documentaries, there’s too much music, although the Philip Glass score is compelling in its own right. In her time, Goodall has been periodically knocked for anthropomorphizing her animal subjects, and for the scientifically questionable practice of setting up feeding stations at Gombe, but Morgen is content to observe these things without pressing Goodall about them. This film is a tribute to a remarkable person, and Goodall is that.
The biographical sketching is well done, including excerpts from letters that show young Jane to be an unabashedly romantic soul: “The hills and forests are my home,” she writes, reveling in her own hero’s journey. She’d been dreaming of Africa since reading Tarzan books in childhood, and her enthusiasm (she had no university degree before she began her study) may have helped her establish closeness with the historically shy apes. She observed things no outsider had before, reporting to the world that chimpanzees made tools and killed other animals for meat, among other things. But her early romanticism was tempered by the discovery that chimps could be just as warlike as their human cousins, which we witness in footage that resembles violent outtakes from the Planet of the Apes reboot. Andy Serkis, eat your heart out. Goodall’s reputation needed no enhancing, but the delightful Jane will only burnish her image as a Wonder Woman whose weapons are patience and empathy.