Fairly early on in the docu-memoir-biography Jane, Dr. Jane Goodall offers a summary of the state of primate research at the dawn of the 1960s that includes reference to a primate scientist whose attempts to blend in with subjects involved covering himself in baboon shit. There is obviously no reason at all for me to share this story with you right now, except to point out that Jane is comfortable in allowing the 83-year-old living legend Dr. Goodall, one of the most admirable humans of the last century, whose prim British voice just drips with refined propriety, who exudes intelligence and knowledge so much that I couldn't even imagine typing her name out without that "Dr." in front of it; as I was saying, Jane is comfortable taking that woman, and within the first ten minutes of our time with her, letting her say "baboon shit" on camera. If there was any worry that this might be a chaste hagiography, it does not survive that moment.

Jane is one of the year's more fascinating exercises in form. The bulk of the movie consists of footage shot in the 1960s by Hugo Van Lawick, a nature cinematographer sent by National Geographic in 1964 to record Goodall's* groundbreaking work studying the chimpanzee populations in Gombe National Park in the west of Tanzania. Aided by footage of the present-day Dr. Goodall in interviews filmed by director Brett Morgen and cinematographer Ellen Kuras, reminiscing about her personal history and her research program, Jane assembles pieces of this footage - thought lost for decades and only recently found - into a sturdy narrative, retelling the early years of Dr. Goodall's career as a fleet 90-minute film, warmly overseen by her older self.

This is, if we're being totally honest and dispassionate, not much more than an awfully cumbersome way to re-invent the biopic. You'd never mistake Jane for a work of fiction, but it still has been very visibly constructed, to maximise its ease of uptake as a narrative and argument about the history of hominid science. And obviously, hooray for easy uptake, but there's still a nagging sense that if this film wasn't so good at shaping this amazing lost footage into a story of a young woman's ascendance to the heights of the world's science community, it might have had a good shot at being good as amazing footage. Because, lest we forget, the most important thing about Dr. Jane Goodall is not that she stumbled into a prominent career in science without so much as a bachelor's degree (though that's fascinating), nor that she found herself becoming better at studying chimpanzee behavior by realizing that it reflected her own life as a young mother (though that's fascinating too), nor that she married her photographer, who was a member of the Dutch aristocracy (that's a lot less fascinating).

Rather, the most important thing about Dr. Goodall is the revolutionary understanding she brought to us of the world of non-human primates, and what we see of that world in Jane is fucking remarkable. The 83-year-old Dr. Goodall hasn't abandoned the romantic treatment of the chimpanzee community she dwelt with as individuals she named, and Jane provides the strongest argument possible that this romanticisation is merely accurately describing the individual animals who became a part of her research. Many years ago, Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man looked into the eyes of bears and flatly declared them to be impenetrably inhuman, possessing no awareness or intellect as we would recognise them. Jane looks into the eyes of chimpanzees, and as Dr. Goodall softly narrates her certitude that these are intelligent, thinking, feeling beings with a strong sense of their own self, and by God, but you can see it in the footage.

That, anyway, is the film that Jane only sporadically commits to being, and not with an overabundance of passion. And that is my biggest reservation about the film. I love the ingenuity of the editing, and I love the framing of the new footage that transforms this material into a visual diary and spoken-word memoir, rather than just a straight biopic. It is a very damn awesome look into the life of a very damn awesome human being. But I will always have a little bit of regret that Morgen didn't let the footage do its own talking; and I will permit myself a little optimism that this is not going to be the last documentary project to be culled from the treasure trove of Van Lawick's footage.

The second-biggest reservation, and it's more an annoyance than anything, is the score; the film is set to ostensibly new compositions by Philip Glass, who I will never turn against so long as he lives; but in truth, his film scores have gotten awfully samey over the course of the 21st Century, particularly his documentary scores. Jane, in particular, feels more like outtakes from the recording sessions for The Fog of War than a new composition in its own right. This would barely matter, except that the score is absolutely everywhere in this film: if there are two straight minutes anywhere in the film without Glass's minimalist organ grinding serving to provide no particular emotional framework for the imagery, I'd be very surprised.

So anyway, the film is not without its disappointments and limitations; but how much of a problem is that, really? Jane is a loving tribute to a one of a kind person, that comes not from showering her with praise and encomiums, but through the more direct and powerful means of showing us footage of her in the very element where she did the work that made her worthy of tribute in the first place. The footage of the young woman, dropped into the deepest end possible and immediately able to thrive there, is incredible. Goodall's confidence and seriousness are exquisite, palpable qualities in the images we see, and her absolute comfort with the chimpanzees who formed the basis of her life's work is evident in every quiet moment of active watching we see her engaged in. I can imagine a better Jane, but the Jane we got is a small marvel in its own right, and one of the most exciting, invigorating documentaries I have seen in 2017.




*She didn't have her doctorate yet, so I feel okay not typing it in this case.