It’s a common refrain, rich with irony, but legal scholar Steven M. Wise has made it his personal mission for the law to take those words at face value. In 2007, he founded the Nonhuman Rights Project in an effort to change the legal status of some animals from property to persons, and his tireless crusade — which eventually galvanized around a legal battle to emancipate two individual chimps — is the subject of the latest fly-on-the-wall film by documentary legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“Don’t Look Back”). And yet, while the 90-year-old Pennebaker doesn’t appear to deviate from the observational aesthetic that has defined his life’s work, “Unlocking the Cage” is nevertheless an ill-fitting first for he and his partner: an issue-based film.
Too didactic for its own good, this disappointing chapter in one of cinema’s most storied careers tries to mask its true nature for as long as possible. Whether by accident or design, a brief prologue deceptively suggests that the film will be more of a character study than the agitprop it becomes. Wise sits in the front of an Albany courtroom, pleased that his unprecedented case has gathered enough steam to be argued before a judge. The camera catches him as he leans over to his partner and whispers a few words that are presented on screen in large subtitles: “All I can say is that we have fucking done it.” It’s a disarming moment, and one that feels both grandiose and boastful in this (lack of) context. Our first impression of Wise isn’t as a hero, but as a wayward crusader, tilting at windmills and laughing all the way — only at the end of the film does it become clear that Pennebaker and Hegedus are completely in his thrall.
That’s not to say that Wise’s message isn’t sincere, valuable, and worth amplifying by whatever means possible. “Right now, the line between human beings and animals is at an irrational place,” he argues, “are you human beings? You have rights. Are you an animal? You don’t.” You don’t have to be a member of PETA to appreciate that such a binary is both terribly reductive and also an open invitation to abuse. If corporations can be people, why can’t chimpanzees? On the other hand, we literally eat animals for pleasure. Yes, recent years have seen a growing concern in regards to how these creatures are treated before they’re slaughtered, but the fact remains that if animals had human rights, most of us would be wanted for genocide.
But Wise isn’t advocating for chickens and tunas to have rights, he’s advocating for those species that have “a theory of mind,” species capable of understanding that they are individuals who have a yesterday and a tomorrow. He’s fighting for chimps — two of them in particular. Some of the film’s most ambiguously compelling footage finds Wise choosing which individual primates will be the best representatives for his cause (the sadder their story the better!), and how inconvenienced he is when all the animals he casts seem to die shortly thereafter. Is his sadness genuine, or is he just frustrated at the obstacles that such losses present his agenda?
It’s hard to say, especially because Pennebaker and Hegedus’s approach pushes Wise’s interior life out of the picture, but the rhetorical question nevertheless calls attention to how the Nonhuman Rights Projects is using these animals to advance their own agenda; the chimps they’re ostensibly trying to help have no more agency in helping this cause than they did in resisting the NASA test flights for which their kind was shot into space. “We may be the only lawyers on Earth whose clients are all innocent,” reads a poster in Wise’s office, but they’re also the only lawyers on Earth whose clients can’t possibly be guilty. There’s something vaguely sinister about how Wise selects his clients against their will (a number of chimps are ruled out because they love their owners too much), but Pennebaker and Hegedus devote precious little time to such murky waters.
The fascinating questions provoked by Wise’s crusade are far more interesting than its logistics, and so it’s more than a little frustrating to see how much of this film is spent bouncing between courts as Wise tries to game the system into recognizing the validity of his argument. A few cringe-worthy moments redeem the tedium (such as when a judge castigates Wise for comparing animal captivity to human slavery), but the emphasis on human systems doesn’t accentuate the arbitrariness of arbitration so much as it cements the impression that animals have nothing to do with this.
Everything comes into focus during the final moments, as the doc peels back its veneer of neutrality and makes it clear that Wise isn’t just the subject of this film, but also its quixotic hero. Subjectivity is a give-in, not a criticism, but such moral instructiveness is a catastrophically poor fit for Pennebaker and Hegedus’ observational approach. It’s one thing for Wise to celebrate his triumph, and quite another for the documentary to join him. The message might be good, but the medium garbles it up.
“Unlocking the Cage” opens in theaters on Wednesday, May 25.
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