Brett Morgen, director of the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, opens his new doc Jane with a montage of evolution. We see 60-year-old nature footage of a fly, a spider, a caterpillar, a fluffier caterpillar, a bird, a bigger bird, and finally a baboon. At last, behold the humans: a guide steering his speedboat across Tanzania’s Lake Tanganyika, and his passenger Jane Goodall, an untrained, unflappable 26-year-old British secretary sent by her boss, paleontologist Louis Leakey, to discover clues about the behavior of early man. She wants to spy on chimpanzees, and Morgen takes his time teasing us about when they’ll appear. A bent branch here, a paw. Once the chimps realize they can steal Goodall’s bananas, they burst into the film, playing, grooming, fighting, mating, and gifting her the data that will make her a scientific legend.
Goodall exponentially multiplied our knowledge of primate behavior — which before she arrived, had been close to zero. As she tells Morgen, she didn’t fear a chimp ripping off her face because no one yet knew chimps could do that. People still thought chimps were vegetarians. She had to break the news they were cannibals. As she lacked schooling — Leakey feared, correctly, that it would prejudice her observations — her knowledge of the jungle came from the Tarzan books she grew up reading in the Bournemouth trees. As a child, she fantasized of visiting Africa in the body of a man. It didn’t occur to her that a woman could live in the forest, too, or that she’d become the icon who’d prove it. Though adult Goodall is as practical as her wardrobe of sturdy khaki shorts, her letters home, which Morgen animates with the same energy he used for Cobain’s teen diaries, are filled with wonder at her luck. “I am living in my dream,” she writes. “Can it really be me?”
What’s astonishing about the footage of Goodall’s adventures isn’t just their propulsive beauty. Jane is forever walking, leaping, climbing, and scanning the lush, green hills with her treasured pair of black binoculars, and at night, wrapping herself in blankets before a pink and purple sunset to sleep under the stars. It’s how entirely at ease she is in nature. She never sweats or grimaces. Her blonde ponytail is immaculate. If Goodall ever once swatted away a bug, Morgen must have edited it out. She belongs. “I’m meant to be here,” she thought. The images agree.
Some of our most legendary animal experts “studied” wildlife by killing and stuffing it, or dragging the beasts back to the west to live in concrete zoos. Goodall was content to watch and learn — a self-described “strange white ape” tagging after the chimp’s fig-foraging parties hoping for an invite to their home. As she watches them, we watch her: curious green eyes, steady voice, calm face, so focused on the feelings of another species that she doesn’t permit any in herself. Let the chimps express joy and sorrow and fear and jealousy, along with the gorgeous violins of Philip Glass’ score. At most, Goodall purses her lips and squeezes out the smallest fraction of a smile. There’s an irony in that while she was learning how much animals value community, she contentedly shunned human connection. She’d dreamed of Africa, not domestic bliss. In one lovely shot, Goodall stands barefoot in the rain veiled by a clear tarp wet with lacy droplets, a woman married to her ambitions.
Within Goodall’s first year, she made the observation that would upend mankind. Humans long prided themselves on being the only animal that made and used tools. Okay, okay, maybe were weren’t made in the Garden of Eden, but tools, we insisted, made us unique. Then Goodall announced she’d she spotted a chimp dubbed David Greybeard stripping a branch to make a termite fishing pole. Science panicked. “We must now redefine man or accept chimpanzees as human,” wrote one newspaper. In truth, we did a bit of both, ramping up the animal rights movement while convincing ourselves that no, no, mankind is special because of our complex language. After Jane’s breakthrough, we’ve recognized that dozens of animals use tools — crows, in particular, are masters. As we improve our ability to log and interpret animal squawks, I suspect someday we’ll have to redefine ourselves again.
For her efforts, the newspaper headlines called Goodall a “pert scientist” and “comely miss.” She wanted to be Tarzan. They insisted she stayed Jane. She was also given a National Geographic photographer named Hugo van Lawick, whose long-lost footage was only discovered in 2014, inspiring the documentary. As his camera stares at the ground, we hear the Dr. Livingstone moment when they met:
“Hi, I’m Jane.”
‘Hugo,” he replies. Neither feigns excitement.
“He came to document my project,” says Goodall, planting a flag in her turf. But then minutes later, we see her glance at the camera and grin. In this paradise, Eve found her Adam. Van Lawick flew home and proposed by telegram. The reply was perfectly her: “Yes Stop Love Jane Stop.”
Morgen’s structural inspiration is to organize Jane not around the facts Goodall found about chimps, but the emotions the chimps help this strong, independent woman find in herself. During courtship, she and van Lawick groom each other in the dirt. Later, when Goodall gives birth to their son Grub, she mimics the bond between chimpanzee matriarch Flo and her son, Flint. Today, Goodall looks to her animals to understand death — though the now 83-year-old is as sharp, lean and tough as ever.
Leaky sent Goodall to Gombe to discover mankind’s past. Instead, Jane reveals the present and perpetual ties between primates and man. As the film rushes to a too-hasty ending, Goodall makes a plea to protect the Earth that taught her, and us, so much. We need to. There’s still so much to learn.