When I first saw Brett Morgen’s 2002 documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, I was shocked that the film somehow matched the rollicking, mercurial energy of its subject, producer Robert Evans. Morgen reimagined the use of archival footage and voiceover, and the style he pioneered has now been mimicked endlessly — there’s a trove of YouTube tutorials teaching regular folks how to ape the animation of that picture. Morgen would be a kind of legend even if he had only contributed that one revolution to the art of documentary filmmaking. But he did it again with 2015’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and now he’s doing it again-again, with Jane, a tightly woven immersive experience that plunges into the early life of trailblazing primatologist Jane Goodall.
Through gorgeous footage — once thought lost — shot by Goodall’s late ex-husband Hugo van Lawick in the 1960s, we see a young Goodall quietly stalking a family of chimps in Gombe. The camera tracks her; she’s both the researcher and van Lawick’s subject matter. Van Lawick, who went on to become the premier photographer of the Saharan landscape after their divorce, shot all the footage as though he were making a narrative film — Goodall says van Lawick refused to turn on his camera unless the light was perfect. Morgen edits this footage together as though it were all one beautiful, soaring montage, where there’s barely room for breath before the next harrowing/exhilarating/melancholy/thrilling chapter begins. The director’s present-day interviews with Goodall act as narration, the images we see driving what she will say in her voiceover, rather than the voiceover spontaneously guiding what topic might emerge next. Unlike most doc directors, Morgen edited the footage of this film together before conducting his subject interview.
From the moments we see of Goodall and van Lawick falling in love and establishing their careers until we realize their perfect paradise could never last, Jane is an atypical romance between a woman, a man, a child, and a family of chimps. The chimps themselves become rich, full characters, as we get to know matriarch Flo and patriarch David Greybeard. And one of the most striking storylines comes from Goodall observing Flo become a new mother and using that behavior as a model for her own transition into motherhood. When it becomes clear that Flo’s parenting methods were actually disastrous for her baby chimp — culminating in a heartrending scene of unspeakable grief — Goodall completely upturns her and her son’s life to avoid making the same mistakes. But the director doesn’t dwell too long on this or any one moment. There are no loose ends or wasted time; everything builds to a rising crescendo that makes you feel like your heart is going to burst. The immense strength of this remarkable woman is on such powerful display that, twenty minutes into the film, tears welled from my eyes and did not stop, even after I left the theater.
You might remember some heartfelt essays from women who were surprised to find themselves crying while watching Wonder Woman earlier this year. I was one of those criers. It was as though I didn’t know what I needed to see on the screen — a female hero — until I saw it before me. This is how I felt watching Jane. Around the midpoint of the film, Morgen flashes on the screen a succession of letters Goodall’s mother wrote to her, encouraging her not to follow her husband or abandon her dreams. The scene — and all the others — is heightened by a score from Philip Glass that swells and thrums. In it, the enormity of Goodall’s bravery and accomplishments hit me like a coconut on the head. “My God,” I said aloud.