Jane (2017) Film Review

Directed and Written by: Brett Morgen
Featuring: Jane Goodall, Hugo van Lawick
Produced by: Brett Morgen, Tony Gerber, Bryan Burk, James A. Smith
Executive Produced by: Tim Pastore
Music by: Philip Glass
Edited by: Joe Beshenkovsky
Cinematography by: Ellen Kuras
Winner of the Critics Choice Documentary Award for Best Documentary, 2017

Hugo van Lawick/National Geographic

“Hey Jane, where you gonna die?
Live life like a butterfly.”


Jane Goodall’s fame is anomalous in the world of primatology, in that she is the only famous living primatologist there is, and one of only a handful of animal experts in history ever to be so widely known.

Her name is a not-for-profit industry, synonymous with paradigm-shifting philanthropic and, yes, humanitarian efforts she has made on behalf of animals since she first moved to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. To animal rights activists, she is a Gandhi figure; to pop-culture aficionados, she is the world’s coolest trivia subject.

Hugo van Lawick/National Geographic

Yet Goodall herself, in dozens of educational videos, documentary films, and late-night TV appearances (her IMDB credits number more than 100), has proven to be something of an enigma. She maintains a stately and becalmed presence in public appearances, her hair in a tidy ponytail. Her legend carries with it a foggy impenetrability which threatened both to last forever (at 83, Goodall’s ability to tell her own story has an unfortunate time limit) and to distance many casual admirers of hers from the important work that she took so personally throughout her life.

Brett Morgen, the director and writer of National Geographic Films’s new documentary Jane, must have understood these twin dangers. His chameleonic approach to biographical features – style, for Morgen, is often an imitation of subject – has made him something of an expert voice on historical figures as disparate as Kurt Cobain (HBO’s Cobain: Montage of Heck), the producer Robert Evans (The Kid Stays in the Picture), and the controversial politician Oliver North (Ollie’s Army).

He was a natural choice, then, for this project, in part because he is able to simultaneously revitalize the public narratives around his nonfiction characters while also muddying the water in terms of the public’s connection to them. He is as much a master filmmaker as he is a complicator, and the legend of Jane Goodall was in desperate need of some complicating.

In this (and in so many other ways), Jane is among the year’s most exquisite nonfiction features. A portrait of Goodall’s early career rich in aesthetic pleasures, it is the crown jewel in National Geographic’s documentary work to date, and highly likely to be nominated for the Academy Award in 2018.

Hugo van Lawick/National Geographic

I’m good with that: as a critic with an archivist’s background, I may be the target audience for this film, which found its roots in hundreds of hours of footage thought lost before their momentous rediscovery in 2014.

An opening credit tells us that these images were captured by Hugo van Lawick, a filmmaker and wildlife photographer who was assigned to follow Goodall during her time in Tanzania. Goodall fanatics will recognize van Lawick’s importance to her life’s story; but for those only exposed to general knowledge about Goodall’s work with chimpanzees, the presence of such footage comes as a lovely shock.

And what spectacular imagery it is! Restored and digitized 16mm film, in sumptuous tones of green, gold, and dark brown – never before have different shades of ape fur told so clear a story – show Goodall in the early stages of her first study in Gombe, underwritten by Louis Leakey. The preternatural calm is already there, behind Goodall’s bright eyes, at the age of 26.

So is the challenging intellect. When Leakey forces her to bring a documentarian into the fold, she bristles: Tanzania is her domain, and she does not need another person, much less a male, interrupting or slowing down her progress. They get accustomed to one another, however, beginning a highly fruitful relationship.

Van Lawick captures Jane as she develops from a fledgling scientist and animal lover into a member of the chimp community, each new echelon achieved with saintly patience. Moments of interaction between her and the apes are, in a word, sublime.

Morgen and his editor, Joe Beshenkovsky, thread through this footage the filmmaker’s conversations in the present day with Goodall, shot by the wonderful cinematographer Ellen Kuras in warm, spacious light. It is in this room that her soul begins to reveal itself, primarily in Goodall’s near-existential responses (which double at times as narration.)

Throughout it all, an original score by Philip Glass bursts forth like golden rain, flooding each image with sonic beauty. Glass’s rhythmic compositions for movies can sometimes suffocate in their miserablism (Notes on a Scandal and Koyaanisqatsi both, at times, felt like they were holding me hostage), but his lively use of major chord progressions here is enough to make anyone cry.

As other critics have noted before me, this is uncommonly kind music, gracious and sprightly, especially for Glass, and a wonder of an achievement even in a career as storied as his. The Jane soundtrack is merely his most recent masterpiece.

Hugo van Lawick/National Geographic

One aspect of this film warrants more attention that it has or will receive: more than any major theatrical documentary this year (Ken Burns be damned), Jane is a love letter to those who helped preserved van Lawick’s original footage.

Montage of Heck put Kurt Cobain’s personal material and archives through a hellish recycling process, spastically reproduced and doctored for maximum aural intensity.

But Morgen and Beshenkovsky are more delicate here, to mimic Goodall herself, I imagine. They surround the young scientist with copious B-roll – iridescent birds in mating season; burrowing beetles in the Tanzanian hillsides; a teal-green tropical canopy – which a more abrupt or aggressive filmmaker would have cycled through too quickly. Her notes from Gombe are utilized in frantic montages, just like Cobain’s, yet the tenor of these sequences is exuberant, rather than elegiac.

We need to see these cinematic documents: they tell us not only about the Shangri-La on Earth where Goodall discovered her calling, but also about someone, unnamed here, for whom it was essential to save, protect, and archive van Lawick’s footage. That person, or persons, are nothing less than seers, and the filmmakers pay homage to their efforts through extensive reuse of the material. Without their shepherding, we would have no Jane.

Jane is currently in theaters around the U.K. and U.S.

Tags: #OscarsSoWhite, , Brett Morgen, , , , Goodall, Hugo van Lawick, Jane Documentary, Jane Goodall, Jane Goodall documentary, Jane review Cinemalin, Jane the movie, Jane the movie review, Koyaanisqatsi, Kurt Cobain, National Geographic, Nature, Nonfiction, Oscars 2018, , , Wildlife Photography

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