JANE. A National Geographic Studios/Public Road Productions Co-Production, U. S. A., 2017. 1 hour 30 minutes. Aspect Ratio Various (mostly 1.85:1). Screenwriter & Director: Brett Morgen. Music: Philip Glass. Cinematography: Ellen Kuras. Archival Photography: Hugo Van Lawick. Editor: Joe Beshenkovsky. Producers: James Smith, Tony Gerber. Archival Producer: Jessica Berman-Bogdan. Animation Director: Stefan Nadelman.
As this new documentary on the pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall opens, we see footages of exotic-looking caterpillars crawling across the screen. With Goodall's primly accented narration in the background, we see her twenty-six year-old self, blond hair bound in a ponytail, unassumingly clad in short pants and khaki shirts, sauntering around in what is today's Gombe National Park in Tanzania. She occasionally glimpses at the camera and favors it with shy, knowing smiles. Goodall, in these precious time-capsule records, taken by her first husband, the Dutch nobleman and nature cameraman Hugo Van Lawick, is a hauntingly ethereal presence, looking so unspoiled and innocent that one is momentarily thrown for a loop. The uncanny sense of an entirely new perspective taking shape, of someone fearlessly, or rather innocuously traversing into what had hitherto been forbidden to the mankind, is palpable. In the course of their activities and married life together, Van Lawick produced nearly 140 hours of 16mm film footages recording every imaginable aspect of Goodall's research and chimpanzee behavior, a very small portion of it had been incorporated into the fifty-minute-long 1965 National Geographic's "wildlife documentary" Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, narrated by Orson Welles.
For sure, Morgen and Goodall do not censor themselves regarding the difficulties, disappointments and dark aspects of her findings and their seismic impact on the world. Jane does a great job showing how the global media responded to her works, to the observation, for instance, that chimps could manipulate tools-- the now-famous behavior of using hay straws to catch termites-- and to her femaleness and youth as if they were defining character traits (as you could easily imagine, more than one "Me Tarzan, You Jane" jokes were printed as news headlines reporting on her research). Goodall herself had to have her perhaps almost unconscious idealization of the chimps as creatures "just like us, only not as evil" painfully challenged when they at one point engaged in a vicious tribal warfare. However, she was certainly not naïve about their nature, as when the Van Lawicks had to build what amounted to be a large cage to protect her infant son Hugo, affectionately called "Grub," since, as Goodall readily acknowledges, the chimps are meat eaters and would sometimes grab and eat the young of other family members.
The documentary, directed by Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture , Chicago 10  and most recently Cobain: Montage of Heck ), almost immediately displays its color, that it is not at all going to be like Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, or for that matter the Nat Geo's usual nature docus, despite its prominent company logo. Jane is first and foremost an exploration of Jane Goodall as a young, fearless and, as she herself is quite ready to admit, ignorant-in-the-ways-of-academia researcher, bereft of even a bachelor's degree, commented on with the wisdom of hindsight but not much irony by her octogenarian self of today. As such, it includes a surprising amount of personal details about her life, with her former husband Van Lawick's camera voraciously, and at times lyrically and heartbreakingly, taking in the extraordinary texture and feel of the experiences she, her family members and her students had had studying the African chimps.
Jane also quietly details the dark episode of a polio epidemic that decimated a large number of chimp population at one point, and Goodall's controversial decision to put one of the oldest chimps, heartbreakingly deteriorating from the incapacitation of his legs, to death. She fiercely defends her decision against the view that she should have let "the nature take its course." Indeed, Goodall has been accused of treating the Gombe chimpanzees "too much like humans," giving them names such as "Greybeard," "Flo" and "Frodo," instead of serial numbers identifying them as specimens, for instance. It is clear, though, that Morgen and the elder Goodall are fully aware of the dangers of "Disney-fying" these wild animals. Jane's defense of her pioneering research work remains measured, thoughtful and resolutely non-ideological. At no point does she come off as the kind of animal activist who resorts to emotional blackmail or guilt-trip based on people's bourgeois consumption habits to push her agenda. She remains, despite the controversies about methodologies and other matters she had to endure, and the positively superhuman amount of public advocacy she had engaged over the last fifty years, a scientist first and foremost, and the documentary never really loses sight of that core fact.
Jane's team of editors and archivists has done a superb job of restoring and integrating Van Lawick's decades-old footage (which he shot for the National Geographic Society) into the newly lensed and animated sections recreating Goodall's field notes, illustrations and news headlines (Jane is, among its numerous honors received, the 2018 winner of the Best Documentary Eddie Award given by the American Cinema Editors Association). Some stylistic choices are rather obvious, such as the "chimp war" footages being presented in black and white, but those come with the territory, I suppose. Compared to, say, those of Alexandra Dean's Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Jane's stylizations comes off as less ironic if no less sophisticated.
In the end, the most important choice Morgen made was to refuse to make Jane a story of "Jane and Her Chimps." This is not a "nature documentary" as you usually imagine one to be, as, even though you could learn a lot about chimp behavior and would certainly be exposed to some extraordinarily beautiful and stunning shots of the African chimps in their natural habitat, it is solidly focused on Goodall as a young female adventurer, a loving but imperfect (and therefore most human) mother, a fierce public advocate, but ultimately, a scientist who, following her instincts rather than academic conventions, helped the mankind redefine the meaning of its own "humanity."