Jane Goodall is an octogenarian ecologist / primatologist / anthropologist / environmental activist most famous for her 1960s study of chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Maybe you’ve heard her name before, maybe you haven’t.
A National Geographic production, Jane first and foremost aims to familiarize you with her and her work and it’s phenomenally successful. It’s not a deep dive into Goodall’s findings or their resultant controversies, but that’s neither the kind of film Jane needed to be nor, in many ways, the kind of film we need about figures like Goodall right now as their work fades from public consciousness and becomes simultaneously taken for granted and forgotten. That may sound depressed or desperate, but it’s how I read the situation.
I’m glad to report Jane is well-made, a beautiful work about Goodall that reiterates the significance of her life’s work in an emotionally salient way.
Quickly: Goodall was one of three women handpicked by foundational paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey to study primates in the wild. Their hope was to glean an understanding of prehistoric human behavior. Goodall’s work at Gombe Stream in Tanzania was fundamental to understanding the behavior of chimpanzees and overturning scientific misconceptions about the presence of mind in non-human species.
She witnessed them use tools, hunt, mourn, mother and kill. Her findings were significant, not just for the information they conveyed but for hundreds of new areas of inquiry they launched. Later in her life, Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots & Shoots, both of which which champion conversation, environmental education and animal rights.
Writer / director Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Kid Stays in the Picture) uses a mixture of nature photography, interviews with Goodall and previously thought-lost archival footage of her early expeditions to convey the tapestry of her life. It’s a pretty stirring portrait, and watching actual footage of the the chimpanzees she worked with is spectacular. The importance of studies like the kind Goodall undertook at Gombe cannot really be overstated (although they take pains to emphasize it). There are few areas of the Earth untouched in any way by human culture and few animal populations that have not thusly adapted to our direct or indirect presence. Seeing that footage is like looking into moments of history that will never be re-created. It’s a bounty.
Morgen constructs Jane’s narrative around the emotional core of Goodall’s relationships with her first husband, acclaimed wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, and her son, referred to only as “Grub.” He contrasts this with her study of a mother chimp, Flo, and Flo’s son, Flint. What are the similarities between human and chimpanzee mothers? How did that inform Goodall’s own experience mothering her son? Looking back, how does she feel about the sacrifices she made to be with her work? It can’t be understated just how well the interviews with Goodall and Morgen’s narrative sense handle this area of her life and the story they tell in this movie.
Goodall’s work was controversial, not in the least because she was a leggy blonde without a Ph.D, working alone in out in the bush and reporting findings that didn’t necessarily follow traditional procedure. She addresses how she sometimes used this to her advantage “because she had to get funding,” playing up her image. She waves some of that off; what she doesn’t wave off, and where Goodall comes across at her most personally evocative, is her experience as a mother. Stigmas persist around women and how they choose to handle careers when compounded with responsibilities (or, more accurately, social expectations surrounding those responsibilities) after becoming mothers.
While not a scientific deep-dive into Goodall’s work, Jane touches on and shows footage of several key findings, including but not limited to chimpanzee mating, social structure, aggression and war. And it does touch on the broader scientific controversies: disturbing footage of a polio epidemic in the Gombe that claimed the lives of several chimps before scientists could vaccinate the community. Goodall speaks directly to the scientifically ethical quandary of whether it’s right to introduce vaccinations into the chimp population. She also weighs in on whether the mere presence of researchers caused the outbreak in the first place. Those controversies follow many of the classic anthropological field studies, and I’m glad they were addressed here, however briefly.
If you’re a fan of Philip Glass’ work on the Portrait Trilogy or his soundtrack to A Brief History of Time, and ever wondered what another might sound like — well, Jane is that. It’s a pleasure to hear Glass’s music over another movie about someone whose work contributed to our understanding of the universe, whose media profile is often reduced to the “woman who worked with chimpanzees.” Glass’s soundtrack is available to stream on its own but, of course, works best when paired with the film itself.
I know a fair amount about Goodall and her work because anthropology is a significant interest, so to some extent it’s hard to go into a film like Jane not feeling like something of a fanboy, hoping to see expectations challenged or exceeded. I’ve also seen plenty of classic documentaries about her work — in school or at home. There’s the slight twinge of disappointment that there isn’t more of a deep dive into other parts of her studies, or even just into the bits they briefly mention. But I have to temper myself. This isn’t a movie built for someone going in with a predisposed interest in and love of anthropology, but rather a grade-A entryway for someone curious about her work.
My previous comparison to A Brief History of Time feels apt; the “poetic biography of a celebrity scientist” feels like an antiquated genre now. Biopics, maybe, but big-budget, straightforward documentaries? It’s not something that really gets this kind of presentation anymore. The cultural zeitgeist has slowly sailed away. Smartly told and beautifully composed, Jane is one of this year’s best documentaries.