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Movie review: Documentary 'Jane' celebrates Goodall's life and work with newly discovered footage

POSTED November 20, 2017 7:10 a.m.
“JANE” — 3 stars — Jane Goodall; not rated; Broadway

Brett Morgen’s “Jane” tells the story of Jane Goodall, the famous naturalist who spent years studying chimpanzees in Africa. Built from recently discovered footage taken in the 1960s, Morgen’s film, which is narrated by Goodall herself, is an insightful and thoughtful commentary that fans of wildlife and nature productions like BBC’s “Planet Earth” should enjoy.

The documentary uses superimposed titles at the opening of the film to set up Goodall’s time in Africa. Her employer, Dr. Louis Leakey, was looking for an open-minded candidate to spend six months in Gombe, and Goodall was Leakey’s secretary at the time. Goodall was chosen for the expedition because of her lack of qualifications (she had no college degree or formal naturalist training).

After five months of long-distance observation, the chimps would still scatter every time Goodall approached. Feeling pressure to deliver, things improved for Goodall when an older chimp she’d named David Graybeard suddenly welcomed her into the group. It was a turning point that would shape her career.

Though “Jane” covers the span of Goodall’s career, the bulk of the documentary footage comes through a trove of material that was discovered in 2014. Shot in the 1960s, the film features rich color and some high-quality wildlife footage and captures Goodall herself interacting with the chimps.

Much of the footage was shot by Hugo van Lawick, the accomplished National Geographic photographer who was assigned to Goodall’s project once the society decided to fund her. As Goodall describes her upbringing and early years, she insists that she never aspired to have a traditional family, to be married or to have children. But even in the middle of fulfilling her childhood aspiration to live among wild animals in Africa, her growing attachment to van Lawick eventually led the two to fall in love and get married.

Interestingly, Goodall came to use her own marriage as a reference for her study of the chimps. Specifically, she would compare her relationship with her young son Grub to what she observed between a female chimp named Flo and her son Flint.

These parallels are just one aspect of her study that is highlighted through the film, which takes care to celebrate the substance of her work as well as to champion Goodall herself. For a time, Goodall and van Lawick relocated to the Serengeti to follow their funding, but eventually Goodall was led back to Gombe and her chimps.

Goodall claims her original purpose in studying the chimps was to use them as a reference point for understanding human behavior, and we see the chimpanzees using primitive tools as evidence to refute the idea that only human beings are capable of rational thought. But later, as Goodall is exposed to the chimps’ capacity for savagery and violence, she is compelled to think that certain base impulses are genetic in nature, both in the chimps and in mankind.

Overall, Morgen’s film is a thoughtful examination of Goodall’s work and an interesting presentation about a woman who made great strides both for science and for her gender. It’s also an instructive commentary on how the influence of and instinct to build family can steer lives, whether those lives belong to chimpanzees or the passionate humans observing them.

“Jane” is not rated but might earn a PG-13 for some brief language, scenes of chimpanzees mating, and a toddler in the nude; running time: 90 minutes.

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