About 50 minutes into “Unlocking The Cage,” the camera follows animal-protection lawyer Steven Wise as he marches through a courthouse parking lot, hefting a box that’s visibly stuffed just beyond capacity. “Justice is heavy,” he quips. He’s on his way to make his case for the personhood of Hercules and Leo, a pair of chimpanzees kept at Stony Brook University, where they’re treated as test patients in locomotive experiments. To Stony Brook, the chimpanzees’ imprisonment is just the cost of science. To Wise, it’s tantamount to enslavement, an immoral act that demands judicial attention and rebuke. We can tell a lot about the kind of guy Wise is based on the nature his crusade, but we can tell just as much from his sense of humor.
Wise is at the center of the documentary, and he is one of the two greatest contributing factors to the film’s power as both a piece of advocacy and as entertainment. Rumpled, rascally, blunt in speech, and deeply passionate about his humanitarian quest, Wise is the exact kind of person that any documentary filmmaker would gladly shoot a movie about. He’s smart. He’s engaging. He’s funny. He’s unfailingly gracious toward his colleagues and his opponents alike. (In an obscure gesture of courtroom courtesy, he refers to a lawyer representing Stony Brook as “brother” in one of the film’s final sequences.) But you need more than a magnetic personality to make a good doc tick. You also need a good cause. This, too, makes Wise an ideal subject for a documentary, because his cause is as compelling as it is complex.
If there’s a real problem with “Unlocking The Cage,” co-directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker in their umpteenth collaboration, it’s that it doesn’t dig deep enough. It’s hardly worth it to hold this particular lapse against either Hegedus, or Pennebaker, or the film itself; Wise’s goal of proving that certain animals possess the same autonomy as humans, and thus deserve the same basic rights, might result in unforeseen juridical outcomes. That makes the task of exploring his hypothesis incredibly difficult, and would put too much of a theoretical burden on the picture, its creators, and its participants. Indeed, in the handful of courtroom scenes in the film, the judges Wise pleads his position to reply with mixtures of skepticism, disbelief, and occasionally misapprehension.
That doesn’t mean Hegedus and Pennebaker shouldn’t have tried to wrestle with the potential logical conclusions to Wise’s mission, but perhaps it is enough that the film acknowledges that his efforts might have ramifications he never considered. All “what ifs” aside, “Unlocking The Cage” performs a great service to its materials: It’s a sharply made piece of work that cleanly breaks down Wise’s arguments into intelligible, bite-sized chunks while also fully articulating those arguments in the full opaque glory of legalese jargon. You may feel unmoored during each moment spent as audience to Wise’s tribunal entreaties to dubious judges, but you won’t feel lost. Hegedus and Pennebaker are too good at what they do, and Wise is too well-spoken, to let the audience drown in the film’s whirlpool of statutory lingo.
“Unlocking The Cage” is more fun than it has any right to be, or, more accurately, than anyone might rightly expect it to be. It’s impossible not to laugh at Wise’s witticisms and remarks. It’s equally impossible not to well up in tears when the film gets around to showing us exactly what it is that he’s fighting against. Wise and his colleagues, Liddy and Natalie, drive all across New York state investigating local reports of zoos holding chimpanzees in captivity, looking for candidates to include in their brief; we’re alongside them for the ride, traveling North and West to places like Bailiwick Ranch, a 300-acre sprawl that houses an animal park alongside a paintball range, or Gloversville, where Patrick Lavery keeps Tommy, an older chimpanzee who lives behind bars with no company save for the warm glow of a television set outside of his cage.
The basic premise against Lavery and Bailiwick hosting chimps is self-explanatory: that neither is equipped to give sufficient space, comfort, and care to these creatures. A lingering shot taken during our first encounter with Tommy catches him standing at the edge of his enclosure, staring at us through its crisscrossing barrier while PBS cartoons blare in the background. You might feel like the film is trying to tug your heartstrings, and maybe there’s some truth to that, but “Unlocking The Cage” does so much legwork before we meet Tommy that the image feels more like punctuation than manipulation. No reasonable person can look on Tommy, or at archival footage of chimps literally losing their minds in confinement, without having the breath snatched from their lungs. It’s sobering stuff that invites our compassion instead of baiting it.
In exploring these horrors, Hegedus and Pennebaker ponder the secondary question of why Wise fights at all. He is up against, as he describes it, a “thick legal wall” in his attempt to get the world to recognize animal personhood. What he is suggesting is unprecedented in the history of law, which we’re reminded of in nearly every instance of trial presentation (each of which is uniformly more tense than your average televised lawyerly drama). But Wise fights his fight anyways, and with every loss he and his team endure, they manage to find a win. Today they’ve yet to secure the victory they’re after, but they know that victory is inevitable, and also that each defeat puts them a step closer toward success. Watching Wise make his declarations before our system of justice is inspiring, but watching him dust himself off, rebuff after rebuff, is more so. [B]
“Unlocking The Cage” is now playing in limited release.