Review: ‘Jane’ provides an intimate look into the life of iconic primatologist Jane Goodall

Scientist Jane Goodall in Gombe National Park, 1965 (National Geographic)

Near the beginning of “Jane,” the now 83-year-old primatologist Jane Goodall reflects on the patriarchal culture of the 1950s, back when her dream of studying animals was just that — a dream. Wistfully, she says, “I wanted to do things which men did and women didn’t.”

“Jane” is Goodall’s story told her way, drawing from hundreds of hours of recently discovered archival footage from Goodall’s seminal African expeditions. Present-day interviews with Goodall herself provide insight into her emotions as she broke new anthropological ground with her chimpanzee research. Her work would go on to redefine the very definition of “man.”

At 26-years-old, Goodall began as a secretary for paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey. She had no training whatsoever — just passion and patience. That was enough for Leakey, who sent Goodall to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to study chimpanzees in 1960. Prior to this expedition, there was virtually no research on great apes.

Goodall’s lack of college education and abundance of empathy actually aided her research. Rather than number the chimps like anthropologists are “supposed” to do so as not to become attached, she would name them. Rather than merely observing silently for hours on end, she would interact with them. She would care for them. She would become one of them. 

The fact that Goodall was a successful woman in such a male-dominated scientific community sent the media into a frenzy. According to “Jane,” headlines critiqued her appearance, calling her too blonde, too attractive to be a real scientist. So Goodall used this voyeuristic obsession with her body for her own gain — her status as a “National Geographic cover girl” helped her to secure more funding for her trips to Gombe. The magazine agreed to fund her expedition as long as she allowed one of their wildlife photographers, Hugo van Lawick, to film her as she worked.

Because van Lawick was able to shoot so much footage, the first half hour of “Jane” is shot and edited like a narrative film rather than a documentary. We get to experience the thrill of Goodall’s landmark discovery of the chimpanzees through her own own eyes, thanks to the innovative cinematography by van Lawick, whom Goodall later married. The film itself has been beautifully re-colorized, allowing the majestic purples of the Tanzanian sunsets and the vibrant greens of the jungles to truly pop.

While “Jane” does begin to drag a bit in the second half, most likely due to van Lawick’s eventual reassignment from Gombe, it’s still fascinating to watch Goodall’s evolution from secretary to the foremost primate researcher in the world. The documentary demonstrates just how vital yet undervalued the female perspective is in regards to history and science. “Jane” and the upcoming documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” which details Hollywood leading lady Lamarr’s contributions to wireless communications, may signal hope for the long overdue inclusion of women in scientific history.

“Jane” is now playing at the Broadway Metro, at 43 W Broadway.

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