On learning of this documentary about Jane Goodall's life and work, I had two reactions. First, I couldn't imagine why anyone would make a movie about the pioneering primatologist today. How many times have we already watched her watching monkeys on TV? Second, I couldn't imagine a less likely filmmaker for the task than Brett Morgen, best known for directing Cobain: Montage of Heck.
Now, having seen it three times, I can't imagine Jane not being the year's finest nonfiction feature. It recently earned the Critics' Choice Award for best documentary. If 2016's winner (O.J.: Made in America) is any indication, Jane is now the Oscar front-runner. Morgen's portrait of the 83-year-old anthropologist is a montage of courage, grace and genius.
And it wouldn't have happened if not for the unearthing of 150 hours of film lost for 50 years in National Geographic's archives. Morgen's team spent two years just organizing the stock, which wasn't in chronological order and had no audio.
The director doubtless never dreamed he'd been handed a winning ticket in the all-time bio-doc lottery. The stock wasn't merely vintage. It was raw, never-before-seen footage of Goodall's historic first trip to Africa.
That meant footage of the 26-year-old observing chimpanzees in the wild for the first time (the first time anyone had). Of her patiently allowing a group of apes to adjust to her presence until one finally approached and accepted a banana from her human hand. Of her documenting the chimps as they stripped leaves off twigs and used them to "fish" for termites underground. In other words, they made and used tools, an ability then universally believed to be unique to our species. Anthropological and religious institutions had a cow.
The significance of these images sneaks up on the viewer. If Morgen had shown Albert Einstein scribbling E = mc2 in his notebook for the first time, or Charles Darwin's light-bulb moment, the sight wouldn't have more historical weight. The director reminds us that Goodall isn't just an interchangeable Marlin Perkins or Jim Fowler but one of the most trailblazing scientists of our age.
We learn that, when she made this expedition to the Gombe Stream National Park in 1960, she was so young its warden insisted her mother accompany her. That she had neither a degree nor experience in the field. That so little was known about wild apes at the time, it never occurred to Goodall to be afraid. That, as a girl, Jane dreamed of living in the jungle with Tarzan.
There's so much more here: a love story beautiful and heartbreaking enough to make a movie by itself. Members of a chimp community you'll get to know by name, whose joys and tragedies you'll feel deeply. Present-day interviews with Goodall in which she looks back and to the future of her worldwide institute's work, the longest continuous undertaking of its kind ever.
Then there's my favorite part, the sequence in which we watch the luminous blonde in her short safari shorts (occasionally washing her long hair in a stream) and hear the now-Dame Goodall recount with bemusement how securing research funds often required playing up her sex appeal.
Needless to say, it worked. As does virtually every element of Morgen's bio, from his masterful editing and resurrection of the late Hugo van Lawick's breathtaking footage to the score by Philip Glass, his most ingenious in years. With its fresh take on a familiar subject, Jane is more than a major film. It's a major discovery.