A terrific documentary subject, primatologist Jane Goodall tells her story with openness and humor, while spectacular footage brings her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees to vivid visual life, in the beautifully crafted “Jane.”
Director Brett Morgan (“Crossfire Hurricane”) has combined a big-screen wildlife doc with an intimate portrait of Goodall, whose observations of Tanzanian chimps in the 1960s significantly affected how we perceive the animal world.
The film, screening at the Kabuki in The City, contains highlights from more than 100 hours of recently discovered National Geographic archive footage, shot by renowned 20th-century Dutch photographer Hugo van Lawick.
Goodall looks back on that period in voice-over passages, excerpted from both an audio book and an interview with Morgen.
In these recollections, Goodall describes how, growing up in England, she fantasized about living in Africa among animals.
That wish became reality in 1960, when she was a 26-year-old secretary working for paleontologist Louis Leakey. Citing the non-college-educated Goodall’s lack of science-world bias, Leakey sent her to Tanzania’s Gombe wilderness to observe the behavior of its chimpanzees.
Presented with an immediacy that suggests a present-tense adventure, the survey experiences a major breakthrough when the chimps accept Goodall into their community.
In a monumental development, Goodall observes one chimpanzee using a twig as a tool. Additional observations reveal chimpanzees to be social creatures, loving parents and banana-stealing rascals.
Goodall’s reports prompt criticism from scientists. Morgen includes a montage of news coverage, much of it reflecting sexist attitudes.
Van Lawick enters the picture in 1962, sent to Gombe by National Geographic to document Goodall’s work. Initially, Goodall considers him an intruder. But she and van Lawick eventually marry. As she describes their relationship in voice-over, the film becomes a love story.
A son, nicknamed Grub, is born.
Like Goodall, van Lawick is devoted to his work, which takes him to the Serengeti plains. Goodall prefers to live in Gombe, where her chimpanzee survey, her primary love, is. The pair divorce.
Additional developments include a heartbreaking outbreak of polio among the chimps and a deadly chimpanzee war.
Clearly enamored with Goodall, Morgen presents her as virtually flawless. A more nuanced portrait would have made her even more fascinating.
It should be noted that Morgen takes liberties with chronologies. The footage representing Goodall’s pre-van Lawick life wasn’t shot until after van Lawick arrived.
But the film is still a captivating profile of an extraordinary woman and of a career distinguished by intelligence and an undying sense of wonder.
Goodall, who, at 83, now travels the world to discuss wildlife conservation, is an eloquent, insightful, entertaining storyteller. The camerawork by van Lawick, which features exquisite African scenery, is a treat.
The film also triumphs as an inspiring feminist story about a woman who entered predominantly male territory to pursue the career of her dreams.
Goodall’s chimpanzee survey is the longest-running continuous study of animals in their natural habitat.
Three and a half stars
Starring Jane Goodall, Hugo van Lawick
Written and directed by Brett Morgen
Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes