Directed by Brett Morgen
Starring: Jane Goodall, Hugo Van Lawick
1 hr. 30 min.
1962 was a seminal year. The U.S. stood eyeball-to-eyeball with the U.S.S.R over missiles in Cuba. James Howard Meredith became the first African American student admitted to the University of Mississippi. Marilyn Monroe died as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys were born. And thousands of miles away, in Gombe, Tanzania, there was Jane Goodall. A young, untrained Goodall observed chimpanzees making tools, the better to feed with on a termite hill — a groundbreaking discovery that chimps were more like us than ever imagined.
Goodall had been chosen by Dr. Louis Leakey to go to Africa and study the primates. After her discovery, National Geographic chose to extend funding of the 26-year-old’s research, and sent photographer Hugo van Lawick to film her at work. His unused footage, considered lost for decades, was unearthed in 2014 and placed in the hands of documentarian Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture). This footage, considered “found art,” has yielded Jane, a fascinating hour and a half of beauty, love and truth.
There are two things about Jane that immediately seize your interest. One, for those not familiar with Dr. Goodall, is her exquisite loveliness, akin to that of actress Uma Thurman at roughly the same age. There she is, khaki-clad, in the jungle, her natural beauty at one with nature itself. The second is the restored, 16-millimeter, vivid color footage. The vibrancy of each tint brings the past to present glory. The lushness of the jungle pops from the screen: the beauty of the wild as it existed, the green there, from the unspoiled land, so different than the green at the hearts of those who would later seek to spoil it.
At the root of this documentary, more than anything, is the fearlessness and dedication of Goodall. Raised with a love of nature and animals, she devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels as a girl. She notes in her narration, in Gombe, that she was living her dream — to be among the animals with no fear — like Tarzan. Ellen Kuras’ cinematography, Goodall and nature combine to provide the movie’s beauty.
Love comes through in both the unused footage from the 1960s and current interviews with the now 83-year-old conservationist, conducted by Morgen. Romance bursts forth as love blooms between Goodall and van Lawick. They married in 1964 and had a son, Grub, whose early years are included on film. There’s even a clip of Jack Parr with the family in 1973.
Then there’s the truth. Her revelatory work with chimps took place just as ABC-TV was canceling a low-rated, long forgotten sitcom, The Hathaways, featuring a troop of trained chimps. Goodall’s discoveries brought truth about these primates where there had been none. Her observation of chimpanzees took place parallel to a decade highlighted by man’s inhumanity to man. It’s impossible not to consider her work in that light.
Goodall’s dedication to nature — to its thinking, feeling creatures who share so much with us — and to its preservation, remains as steadfast today as it was when she was that young woman in the trees with binoculars, watching chimpanzees and detailing their behavior. Goodall enthralls as a person and documentary subject. And Jane the film enthralls as well, with Goodall’s presence juxtaposed in youth and older years and backed with a thrilling soundtrack by Phillip Glass. Director Morgen’s crush on Jane is obvious. As remarkably as he has elicited the beauty and truth in both found footage and later interviews, it’s the love for and from Jane that radiates throughout an engrossing film, which at last has made it to Ventura County screens. Catch it while you can!