Review: Unlocking the Cage

The filmmakers have dubiously inflated their narrative for dramatic purposes.

Unlocking the Cage
Photo: First Run Features

Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker muddle the direct cinema style they previously employed in such tightly focused works as Town Bloody Hall and The War Room with this PSA-style piece advocating nonhuman-rights activism. Unlocking the Cage follows Harvard law professor Steven Wise over a three-year span as he attempts to help pass legislation that would recognize the personhood of certain nonhuman animals. Although the documentary’s form mostly adheres to the filmmakers’ typical approach, with no talking heads and the action staying confined to Wise and his associates, the results are thin and compromised, in part because Hegedus and Pennebaker favor James Lavino’s noxious score to carry the film from scene to scene. A mix of melancholic piano notes and hopeful-sounding strings, the ever-present music dilutes the proposed severity of Wise’s cause and cheapens what should be a rational, even intellectual, matter into a bid to make hearts swell.

While the filmmakers refrain from leaning on slow-motion close-ups of animal abuse, as in the well-known BCSPCA ad featuring Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” Unlocking the Cage utilizes comparably suspect tactics in its dependence on the righteous indignation of onlookers. Bemoaning how animals are being stripped of their autonomy, Wise glumly opines: “It just breaks my heart.” Similarly, while examining the conditions where chimpanzees are being tortured for medical experiments, one of Wise’s associates laments: “I just can’t even imagine it.” These valuations position the Nonhuman Rights Project, which Wise helped form in 2007, as an emotional endeavor meant to assuage the pity felt by human beings, even though Wise and his constituents are adamant that their aims are wholly juridical.

Nevertheless, Hegedus and Pennebaker distill the group’s three-year efforts into a coherent series of off-roading treks and conversations to uncover animal rights violations. In a particularly memorable sequence, a few members track down a location where chimps are allegedly being abused through a spot on the Today show, in which the location’s reindeer were featured. Posing as yokels interested in seeing the reindeer, the investigators manage to find the chimps they were searching for. The filmmakers likewise make the argument’s language accessible, as Wise repeats phrases like “cognitively complex animals” and “self-determination and autonomy are supreme values within the common law” to hammer home the ideas.

However, the filmmakers position Wise’s legal affairs as elements of a David-versus-Goliath narrative. When Wise practices his arguments in front of a mock court, certain phrases and wordings prove troublesome and are revised accordingly. These sequences have the effect of a training montage, even though they aren’t edited as such, because the events have been retrofitted to suit the style of a legal potboiler. Indeed, Unlocking the Cage builds to a climactic courtroom scene where Wise finally gets to put his efforts in play and stand before a murder’s row of skeptical judges. Yet even here, it’s still not clear whether Wise’s driving motivation is wholly ethical or a means to find a cure for his broken heart.

The problem isn’t necessarily the tension between emotion and rationality, but that the filmmakers do little to explore these dimensions as they arise. Following Wise so exclusively, and with seldom reference to outside activism or efforts, deifies his actions in discomfiting and potentially misleading ways. Any time Wise addresses an opponent, the interaction is edited to not only favor his vantage point, but empathize with it, to manufacture a sense of Wise being a rebel against the system. There’s undoubtedly a degree of that narrative at work in Wise’s efforts, but the filmmakers have dubiously inflated it for dramatic purposes. In a late scene, as Wise and company are reviewing new polling data that shows a majority of voters would favor nonhuman rights legislation, one participant says: “When we weren’t looking, we moved into the mainstream.” The sentiment also applies for Unlocking the Cage.

 Director: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker  Distributor: First Run Features and HBO Documentary Films  Running Time: 91 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2016

Clayton Dillard

Clayton Dillard is a lecturer in cinema at San Francisco State University.

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