How many people can say that they changed the world in some fundamental way?
Jane Goodall can, and Brett Morgan’s new documentary JANE is a terrific celebration of the unconventional life of this remarkable woman. Built largely from footage shot at the very start of her career that had been thought lost for decades, the film is not just a look at how she changed our understanding of chimpanzee behavior, but also a sly love story and, simply on an aesthetic level, one of the year’s most beautiful movies.
When 26-year-old Goodall was picked to travel to the Gombe Stream National Park in 1960, she had no formal anthropological education. That’s part of what appealed to Louis Leakey, who initially hired her as his secretary. He wanted to send someone who wasn’t going to walk in with pre-conceived ideas, someone who wasn’t part of any current school of thought. Leakey believed that the observation of great apes held the key to understanding how early man behaved, and he felt like every “expert” in the field was too set in their ways to really observe without trying to shape the narrative of what they were watching. It’s frankly amazing that he found Goodall, who seems to have been built to do the job the right way.
As a child, she had a stuffed chimpanzee that was a prized possession, and she lost herself in tree-climbing and Tarzan books. She was the perfect person for this job, and the footage of her at work in those early days is so amazing, so close-up and observational, that it almost feels fake. It is the work of Hugo van Lawick, who was sent by National Geographic to supplement her written work with an actual visual record, and the most charming thing about Jane is the way it gradually becomes apparent that as much as he loves photographing nature, van Lawick also loves shooting Goodall. Their life together begins in that blessed isolation, surrounded by some of the most amazing landscapes in the world, and Morgen’s film is careful not to turn any of this into standard biopic gristle. There’s something experiential about the way the film unfolds, something immersive and beautiful, and I found myself transported by it.
There is new interview material used to wrap around everything else, but the archival footage is what makes this so dazzling. Some of the sequences are difficult — there’s a polio outbreak that almost destroys the chimp population, for example, and we see the effects on the chimps in stark, explicit, heartbreaking detail. There’s a devastating story about a young male chimp unable to live apart from his mother. But there is also so much joy and beauty, and by showing both, the film pays respect to the way Goodall’s views evolved. She was surprised by the aggression of chimps and by their power, and seeing violence from them rattled her. She wanted to believe better, and instead, it underlined some of the things that most disappointed her about humanity in the first place.
Exceptional people never fit into easy boxes, and that is the real power of Morgen’s film. This is a celebration of how the right person in the right place can accomplish almost anything. The amount of good she’s done for the world over the years is impossible to calculate, and to see her at the beginning of all of it, simply trying to figure out how to do a good job with this work that she was so happy to get, makes it feel like we’re all capable of equal greatness if we are simply true to ourselves and can find a way to press our passions into service of something significant.
A note about how the film was screened for us. The Hollywood Bowl is a beautiful outdoor venue here in Los Angeles where there are orchestral performances on a regular basis. Jane was screened there, with a live 78-piece orchestra playing along to the movie. The score by Philip Glass is wonderful, and hearing it live like that, with the remarkable acoustics of the Bowl all put to use selling the sounds of the jungle all around us, was one of those viewing experiences I’ll never forget. But if I’d had to watch the film on my laptop as a streaming screener, I would still have felt like it was a knockout.
Right now, any piece of art that can be as smart and tasteful and sincere as this while promoting the idea that decency is important is something that we need, and Goodall is a beacon of decency. Her superpower is simple — when she wanted to learn about something, she listened. She watched. She opened her empathy up as wide as she could so that she could watch without judgment. These are all qualities we could learn from her, and I hope people not only see Jane, but take it to heart. It seems ironic, but it’s true — a documentary about ape behavior is one of the year’s most essentially human films.
Running time: 90 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic