‘Jane’ Is a Compelling Portrait of Trailblazing Chimp Expert Jane Goodall

The extraordinary story of how an “ordinary” woman became the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees thanks to her decades-long study of them in the wild, is told in the National Geographic documentary “Jane.” Filmmaker Brett Morgan, the man such compelling docs such as “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” went through previously unseen footage to piece together the inspiring story of Dr. Jane Goodall. This striking footage of Goodall doing her work and living her life in Africa is interwoven with interviews conducted by Morgan with the woman herself, speaking candidly about her triumphs and setbacks.

Although she is now known as a renowned phd, those unfamiliar with Goodall’s life story will be surprised to learn that she came from rather humble beginnings, and when she first journeyed to Africa to conduct research on chimps she had no degree, as finances prevented her from attending university. Born and raised in Britain, she was working as a secretary when she came into contact with Kenyan archaeologist and palaeontologist Louis Leakey. Impressed by her intelligence and passion for animals, Dr. Leakey chose her to travel to Tanzania to research primate behavior.

The stunning 1960s footage the viewer gets to feast their eyes on in “Jane” exists thanks to the late Hugo van Lawick, a Dutch wildlife filmmaker and photographer who was sent by National Geographic to Africa to document Goodall and her work. The scientist and the filmmaker fell in love during this first trip of his, something that is apparent in the candid shots of her being playful for the camera.

There is, of course, also the striking footage of the chimps themselves, whom Goodall got to know well, naming them and tracking their health, mating and other behaviors. One does not have to know a lot of about animals or science to enjoy this documentary, as Goodall, who seems to remember her first trip into the wild as if it were last year, describes the chimps in such a way to make them relatable. It was perhaps her initial lack of formal scientific training that allowed her to find the humanity in her subjects, as opposed to looking at them just as specimens, and thus churning out findings that became accessible to a wide audience and earning her acclaim and recognition beyond the scientific community.

Also making “Jane” compelling is Goodall’s candidness and ability to speak openly about her lows as well as her highs. Despite the fairy tale beginnings of her romance with van Lawick, the demands placed on both of them due to their respective careers saw the couple separated for long periods at a time, taking a toll on their marriage. Although motherhood did little to slow down her career, the day came when she could no longer tow her little boy with her on her expeditions and had to send him away to school, causing further heartbreak. And although Goodall doesn’t go into great detail about how her gender affected others’ perception of herself and her work, Morgan shows the soft sexism she experienced through news clippings in which she is often referred to as a “girl” while she was well into her twenties and beyond.

Above all, “Jane” carries an important message about the importance of protecting the wildlife and the environment, one Goodall herself hopes will resonate with all who see it. “I hope that it’s going to help spread a message,” she told “Entertainment Voice.” “I just hope that it goes far and wide because it helps people understand the amazing magic of the natural world, and if you understand it and you love it, then you want to help it, and, boy, does it need help today.”

Aged 26 when she started her work and now 83, Goodall has served as a role model to generations of women, including some of the biggest actresses in Hollywood who came out to see the Los Angeles premiere of “Jane” at the Hollywood Bowl, during which a live orchestra played Oscar-nominated composer Philip Glass’ moving score.

“I think she impacted all of us,” said Jamie Leigh Curtis of Goodall. “The world, because she changed the way we think, and me as a woman because she is brave in every way I am not. She went into the unknown, and I need MapQuest to tell me how to get from Point A to Point B.”

Goodall’s influence has even extended to the arts, as Jane Lynch spoke about how the scientist inspired her in her acting. “I took an acting class in college where we had to become an animal, and I chose the gorilla, and that just kind of opened me up to the whole world of primates and the research she’s done into them behaviorally and being a part of their society is invaluable and there’s no one like her. No one has done the work that she’s done.”

“Jane Goodall is an idol of mine,” gushed Marcia Gay Harden. “She’s a real hero. She went [into the wilderness], which for a man alone would have been dangerous, and she did it as a woman. She told young girls that they could go on adventures in their lives that would be more fantastic than anything they could ever imagine.”

Jane” opens Oct. 20 in Los Angeles and New York, expanding to other cities Oct. 27 and throughout Nov.