Whatever your views on animal rights, the fleet, engaging documentary "Unlocking the Cage" from nonfiction legends Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker ("The War Room") makes a worthy case for reconsidering the sturdiness of laws that explicitly separate humans from animals. With legal-thriller pacing and emotional intelligence, it chronicles attorney Steven Wise's gung-ho effort to get a U.S. court to recognize a chimpanzee as a legal person with protections, as opposed to a legal "thing" without rights. Fierce protectors of the "personhood" label will scoff, and have plenty, but in a country that grants that status to corporations, Wise argues, why have we denied it to some of the most cognitively complex creatures – apes, dolphins, elephants – that don't happen to be human?
The professorially disheveled Wise is a 30-year veteran of the animal advocacy movement, with a sense of humor that makes him a welcome subject (and conveniently forgoes tarring him with the "nutso" brush). Backed by his crusading colleagues at the Nonhuman Rights Project, whose board includes Jane Goodall, Wise devised a clever legal approach to what he calls a "first salvo in a strategic warfare": file a lawsuit on behalf of a specific captive, abused chimpanzee, and argue for limited rights relating to autonomy that would significantly change the animal's life for the better.
Deciding on New York state as their lawsuit lab, Wise locates a handful of primates as noteworthy plaintiffs, including a pair named Hercules and Leo, kept for research purposes at Stony Brook School of Medicine, and Tommy, an ex-showbiz chimp (from the 1987 Matthew Broderick movie "Project X") living in grim isolation in a makeshift cell with a television.
As Wise's case moves through the system, from friendly local judge to inquisitive appellate division arbiters and eventually New York's Supreme Court, we see all the fine-tunings, missteps and bursts of luck that mark the life of any impassioned legal campaign. And the pitfalls in contending that animals should have rights are legion. A rash of new scientific findings from around the world about how smart these animals are may bolster the "personhood" argument, but a judge who can't see beyond simply improving established animal welfare laws is a setback. And is bringing up the historical plight of slaves, women and children helpful? Or is it a queasy analogy likely to offend?
It all makes for a lean kind of intellectual suspense that Hegedus/Pennebaker present with their customarily observant, unflashy precision. Wise's perseverance too is noteworthy, and his spokesperson skills have edge. (When informed by an interviewer that Tommy's owner boasted that the chimp loved his living arrangement, Wise quips, "If Tommy is so happy, the owner should move in.")
"Unlocking the Cage," despite its cameras being on hand for a historic animal rights push, shouldn't be confused for some hot-button doc ready to slap you into sensibility about its fight. Hegedus/Pennebaker are too smart to get ahead of themselves about something they clearly believe in, when simply hewing to a can-do guy provides enough momentum. Then there's that thing only a camera can do: let us look into the depressed eyes of the speciously captive. Such moments make their point as effectively as any mock-trial-tested, legally sound argument from the mouths of humans.
'Unlocking the Cage'
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes