movie review

‘Jane’ observes and extols nature

Jane Goodall (pictured with Hugo van Lawick in Gombe, Tanzania) is the subject of Brett Morgen’s documentary.
Jane Goodall (pictured with Hugo van Lawick in Gombe, Tanzania) is the subject of Brett Morgen’s documentary.Jane Goodall Institute

Before there was the “Planet of the Apes” series (for which she served as a consultant), there was Jane Goodall.

In 1960, the then 26-year-old began living alone in the pristine Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania — observing, studying, and befriending chimpanzees to learn what they could teach us about the earliest human societies. Not only was she the first person to do this, but she had no academic background. Her mentor, the famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, chose her for that very reason; he didn’t want her fresh impressions prejudiced by received ideas. Now, nearly 60 years later, the 83-year-old Goodall has inspired millions and still works tirelessly to promote the preservation of the environment and the survival of endangered species — including her beloved chimpanzees.


This life is the subject of the documentary “Jane” by Brett Morgen (“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” “The Kid Stays in the Picture”), and the fact that he has managed to reduce it to 90 minutes from more than 100 hours of recently discovered footage is a remarkable achievement. Even more remarkable is that he has shaped this material into a myth-like and intimate dramatic narrative, commented on by Goodall from a present-day interview. The film confronts not just the expected issue of environmentalism but also explores themes of survival, separation, loss, and death.

The story begins in an Edenic wilderness, with Goodall — a slip of a figure, hiding behind binoculars — nearly lost in the saturated greens of the Gombe (the 1960s-era 16mm film stock makes the color more vivid and otherworldly). After months of patient observation, she can approach the chimpanzees and join them in their habitat. She eventually recognizes individuals and gives them names, studying their social structure and behavior (she was the first to discover that chimpanzees could make and use rudimentary tools).


Though the scientific discoveries continued, the paradisal nature of Goodall’s situation could not last. She marries Dutch filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, assigned by National Geographic to report on her work, and they have a son. When her husband takes on other assignments, Goodall remains in Gombe, causing friction in their relationship and leading eventually to divorce. Though she says that her motherhood gave her insights into chimpanzee child-rearing, and vice versa, she was torn between spending time with her son and pursuing her work (her son, she notes, hated chimpanzees).

And as matters grow more complicated in the human world, they deteriorate among the chimpanzees. A polio epidemic decimates the population, and among those lost are animals Goodall had bonded with. A civil war breaks out in the Gombe community, and one part of the population slaughters the other. “I thought they were like us, but nicer,” Goodall says now. “I had no idea of their brutality.”

Despite the harshness, Goodall embraces life, and death. She might anthropomorphize nature, but she does not romanticize it. The film contains numerous images of graphic predation and a heartbreaking scene in which an adolescent chimpanzee touches the hand of his dead mother, not comprehending what has happened. He wanders away, and in two weeks dies of grief. “Jane” teaches tragic lessons, but they ennoble both humans and beasts.

★ ★ ★½


Written and directed by Brett Morgen, based on the writings of Jane Goodall. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 90 minutes. PG (thematic elements involving mating apes, harsh scenes of death, and predation in nature).


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.