Jane Stuns Visually, but Not Equal to the Hype


JANE    (2017)
Directed by Brett Morgen
National Geographic Partners, 89 minutes, PG (Possible disturbing images)

Flamboyant rebels make interesting movie subjects. But what about those whose rebellion is determined and quiet? Jane Goodall (b.1934) revolutionized the field of primatology, but until relatively recently she seldom tooted her own horn. In such a story, a documentary filmmaker’s job is to build a dramatic structure for maximum impact. On this level, Director Brett Morgen is only partly successful. Jane is a decent film, but the East African landscape is more eye-popping than what we learn about Ms. Goodall.

Goodall’s story begins in 1957, when she was working as a secretary for a true rebel: anthropologist Louis S. B. Leakey (1903-72).  Leakey didn’t care all that much about what others thought of him and when you advance evolutionary science as much as he, you don’t have to. Leakey had already proven that many (if not all) human ancestors came from Africa, and was looking for someone to study great apes in hope of extrapolating from simian behavior how hominid ancestors might have lived. He tapped Goodall because she had no specialized training and wouldn’t be vested in bending observations toward any existing theories of primate behavior. Not that there were that many; prior to Goodall’s findings, chimpanzees were viewed mostly as circus animals. In 1957, only someone with the audacity of Leakey could have made it possible for a single, untrained, young female to immerse herself in the Gombe Stream Park, a Tanzanian rainforest. 

At first, she spent most of her days dodging poisonous snakes and swatting vicious insects until at long last she found a chimp colony. Her initial findings didn’t amount to much, but Leakey sent her off to train with primatologists he trusted while he shook the money tree for funding. In 1960, Goodall rocked the scientific world with her discovery that chimps made tools and that they had distinct personalities. This gave Leakey the clout to do something done only seven times before: he pushed Goodall into a Ph.D. program at Cambridge University when she was without the benefit of  a bachelor’s degree. Even then, National Geographic and other institutions balked at sending a single woman back into the field. The compromise was that she had to accept into her camp a male professional nature photographer: Hugh Van Lawick (1937-2002). Much of Jane is built around 100 hours of Van Lawick’s misplaced, unviewed film footage. It has been restored to levels beyond could have been viewed in 1964.

Van Lawick and Goodall made a good work team. Their films documented such hitherto unknown practices such as the polyandrous mating behavior of females in estrus, clan-like social structures, and the shocking levels of violence of which chimps are capable. Tool making, discrete personalities, social hierarchy, and warfare… So much for the idea that humans are unique in those regards.

In Jane, Goodall is also under observation. In his best sequences of added material, Morgen shows collages of sexist newspaper, magazine, and TV features that called more attention to Goodall’s blond hair, fresh face, and shapely legs* than to her research. Van Lawick, a Dutch baron, also fell for Goodall’s comely features; the couple  married in 1964. Three years later, their son “Grub” (Hugo Eric Louis Van Lawick) was born. Alas, Goodall and Van Lawick were less successful as lovers. He grew bored playing second fiddle, accepted a photography assignment in the Serengeti, and asked Jane to move there with him. She chose career over marriage and the couple amicably divorced in 1974.   

Given that Jane is based mostly on Van Lawick’s recovered footage, it’s logical that most of Goodall’s post-1974 activities—such as the creation of the Jane Goodall Institute, her remarriage to Tanzanian parliamentarian and national parks director Dereck Byrceson, her myriad awards, and ongoing work in Gombe—appear mostly as coda. Logical, perhaps, but it’s problematic when chimpanzees end up with more personality that our main subject. When asked how she put up with the sexism in the early days, Goodall’s responded that since her childhood, “I wanted to go to Africa and live among wild animals.” Morgen should not have left such a banality stand unchallenged. The overall portrait of Goodall is that she is more British stiff upper lip than a rebel in the field. Yet it’s well known that she had her feminist consciousness raised. Tepid filmmaking blunts the drama and instead, Morgen tries to amp up with a Philip Glass soundtrack. Glass is occasionally brilliant, but this score is cloying and annoying.

Should you see Jane? There are some amazing things in the film that weren’t necessarily intended as major focal points. Read between the lines and you can appreciate how little we knew before Goodall. When asked how she could get up close to animals “that could rip your face off,” Goodall smiled and replied, “Yes, but one didn’t know that at the time.” She learned fast. Scenes of chimp warfare are terrifying, as were their attacks on Goodall’s compound. Parents will blanch at scenes of Grub inside his wire mesh playroom; male chimps sometimes kill and eat infant chimps and their evolutionary cousins. Shots from the Serengeti are awe-inspiring in ways that made me think of it as the (Non-) Peaceable Kingdom. Morgen also does a good job of showing flaws in some of Goodall’s research methods. Setting up feeding stations made chimps easier to study, but also partially domesticated them. By her own admission, she was also guilty of sentimentalizing; Goodall not only touched her subjects, she gave them names such Goliath, David Greybeard, Frodo, Flint, Fifi, Flo…. One might even reach for the barf bucket when hearing Goodall tell of learning how to mother her own son by observing Flo.

I left the theater with my lifelong admiration of Goodall intact, but my views might be conditioned more by  years of following her career than learning about it from the film. Insofar as discoveries go, I have long admired Van Lawick’s photos, but previously knew little about him. Still, the film is named Jane, not Hugo or Flo. Mainly I admired the visuals. (Warning: There are extreme close-ups of snakes, insects, and chimp faces, so if any of these make you queasy keep a hand ready to shield your eyes.) I guess I can’t fault the film for making more about sexism; after all, Goodall was in the field before The Feminine Mystique made its way into the mainstream. I did notice, though, the large number of females now working at Goodall’s old camp. Isn’t that worthy of comment? Odd as it might seem, I’d recommend you first read Goodall’s Wikipedia page if you decide to see Jane. Goodall is a very important person. That should be shouted out; in the film it’s often but a whisper. But maybe the film makes a contribution by reminding us that rebels come in many forms, even those who simply do rather than make a fuss about it.

Rob Weir

* A confession: I learned about Goodall as a grade school student. (My aunt started buying National Geographic for me when I was eight and I still get it). I too was smitten with Goodall’s lovely legs and my child self thought her the most exotic woman I had ever seen. I get a pass on the latter; that was objectively true for where I was raised!        

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