For many Jane Goodall is the face of an entire field of study, easily the most famous living primatologist. For over half a century her work both in the field and around the world has helped shaped our understanding of the animals under her study, bringing the world of the wild into our homes, and firmly establishing the scientific fact that our near ancestors share far more in common with us than was realized back in the 1950s.
Her tale has been told many times, as recently as Disney’s Chimpanzee IMAX film, so the need for yet another film seemed little more than a cash-in. Yet with immense credit to the National Geographic, they hired a true documentarian rather than a hagiographer to make something not only cinematically rich but downright revelatory about Goodall and her work.
Brett Morgen’s career is remarkable not only for the caliber of his non-fiction work but for the disparate films he has crafted. His Kid Stays In the Picture helped popularise motion graphics in docs to the service of showcasing an iconoclastic subject, and his 30-for-30 film June 17th, 1994 is a textbook example of associative editing using found footage. Most recently his Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck showed that even an oft-told tale can find a new angle, and through use of animation of Cobain’s notebooks Morgen literally brought the words of his subject to life.
With Jane Morgen and his team bring out all the guns, tackling a herculean task of making sense of hundreds of hours of contemporaneous footage to bring Goodall’s journey to audiences. The 16mm footage that is the heart of the film was shot by Jane’s future partner Hugo van Lawick. His steady hand, wonderful composition and exotic imagery form the vast majority of the footage, and save for a brief chat with Jane in the present day the film relies upon this trove that had been carefully preserved since returning from the jungle.
With precise sound design accomplished over the period of two years, Morgen brings the jungles to the fore. The spectacular 7.1 soundscape is buttressed with a sympathetic score by Philip Glass that gives the work even more grandeur, his arpeggiations helping foster the romance, the remoteness and the wildness of the observation of these great apes by the young Goodall.
Lawick’s camera loves Jane, as did the man behind the lens, so it’s easy to be drawn into what’s taking place. But Morgen’s greatness here is how the film never devolves into a simple travelogue. There are extremely questionable actions by a supposedly objective scientist here, particularly judged by today’s methodologies, and the film never shies away from detailing these elements. The interjections during the interview wisely orient the viewer to some of these questions, allowing Jane herself to account for some of the more troubling moments.
All this is to say that the film is far more than mere nature porn, it’s an intelligent and provocative look at the work of Goodall with an appropriate level of both admiration and journalistic skepticism. Jane is in the end, above all, a love story, as Morgen tells it, not between Goodall and her photographer, but between Goodall and nature itself. Her draw to the natural world is profound, and thanks to the sumptuous images it’s impossible to ignore the same temptation to give up the trappings of everyday life and engage directly with the wild lives deep within all of us.
When Goodall’s remarkable run is down, and celebrations aplenty will be provided, there may be no more fitting tribute to this remarkable woman than what Morgen and his team have provided. Yet more than the work of this one person, the film is a showcase for the wonders of nature, our changing relationship with it, and how the very foundation of our understanding not only of apes but of human beings have been radically transformed by the ongoing work out of Gombe.
A powerful work of non-fiction that’s cinematically sublime, you owe it to yourself to experience Jane on the biggest screen you can, with the most powerful sound system possible. Allow yourself to revel in the characters that she spends decades following, to embrace both the savage and the grace of these same creatures that have many of the complexities of those that observe them. A powerful testimony, a showcase of a brilliant photographer and a definitive look at a woman and her work, Jane is almost as extraordinary as the subject it captures so beautifully.