(2017) Documentary (Abramorama/Nat Geo) Jane Goodall, Hugo von Lawick, Grub von Lawick. Directed by Brett Morgen
In the world of natural science, Jane Goodall stands out as a titan in the field of primate study. Her work with chimpanzees has been nothing short of groundbreaking. With no formal training, no university degree, she was sent out into the field by anthropologist Louis B. Leakey to observe chimpanzees in the wild back in 1960.
At the time, little was known about chimpanzee behavior in the wild. Leakey felt that the chimps would give an insight into behavior that might have been exhibited by early man and as it turned out, he was right. The National Geographic Society, who was footing the bill, sent out photographer Hugo von Lawick to document the research on film. He was able to capture footage of chimpanzees using sticks to jab into termite mounds to extract food. This put the scientific community into an uproar because to that point it was assumed that man was the only tool-using creature on the planet; this put that myth to bed. Since then it has been revealed that other animals use tools as well.
Jane wasn’t taken very seriously because she was British, blonde and cute. However, her passion for the animals she studied is deep-seated and obvious. Morgen takes great care to emphasize that the maternal instinct in her was heightened by observing her own mother (who accompanied her into Gombe Stream on her earliest expeditions) and later, by watching the chimpanzee Fiona raise her baby Flint.
Most of the footage we are showed hasn’t been viewed in more than half a century. Goodall narrates, talking about the various incidents onscreen with a memory that is crystal clear. Taken in 16mm film with warm backlighting for the most part, these come off as almost like home movies albeit scientifically important home movies. She makes an excellent narrator and one figures that doing so must have been highly emotional for her, particularly since all of the chimps in that early footage are now dead as is the man who took the footage – von Lawick passed away in 2008. Von Lawick and Goodall developed a romance and married with Goodall giving birth to a son called, incongruously, Grub. When Grub was very young, Goodall put her research on hold while she raised her son, returning back to her love of field work shortly thereafter. Von Lawick’s work with the National Geographic and other organizations would take him further and further away from the Gombe Stream station where Goodall lived; the two eventually divorced but remained close for the rest of his life.
Much of the film revolves around the footage taken by Von Lawick and justifiably so for he was truly an artist behind the camera. Goodall’s more recent work and footage from her camp are almost non-existent and some might criticize this very unbalanced approach and I can understand why they might do so, but really what we do get is simply so riveting and so magical that you don’t really miss anything more recent.
What I could have done without is the Philip Glass score. I have never been a fan of his and quite literally if you’ve heard one Philip Glass score you’ve heard them all. Too many times during the movie I was jerked out of the film because the music was so noticeable and unnecessarily dramatic. The music drowns out the sounds of the jungle which I thought would have been far more effective.
Nonetheless, this is a riveting documentary which presents one of the most inspirational women of the 20th century who continues to be a role model not only for young women but for anyone looking to work with animals in the wild and who cares about conservation and stewardship of the wild. This is also a documentary that is made so well and so beautifully that even despite the intrusive score it will likely be hailed as one of the best documentaries of 2017.
REASONS TO GO: The animal photography is, as to be expected, marvelous. Goodall makes a wonderful narrator. The movie is both informative and inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The Phillip Glass score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes showing animals killing other animals that may be disturbing to sensitive wee ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When National Geographic withdrew its grant money from Goodall and von Lawick, the completed films were archived at the society’s headquarters and remained there until being rediscovered in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chimpanzee
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Big Time