'Unlocking the Cage' swings into animal 'personhood' debate

(CNN)HBO documentaries often engage in advocacy, building a case for one cause or another. "Unlocking the Cage," by contrast, proves more nuanced, documenting a seemingly quixotic quest to win "personhood" for animals, while leaving even those sympathetic to animal rights to contemplate whether they're willing to go that far.

Directed by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker, whose credits include "The War Room," the narrative unfolds from the perspective of attorney Steven Wise, who has dedicated himself to freeing chimpanzees, dolphins and other intelligent creatures held in zoos and showcased as entertainment.
Beyond following Wise into court -- as he seeks a chimpanzee plaintiff to represent as a case study -- the film includes heart-wrenching images of the conditions such animals have faced, including chimps used in the space program that were subjected to testing once it ended.
" allowfullscreen>
Still, Wise's line of reasoning as he argues that "autonomous creatures that should be able to live autonomous lives" includes comparing the lot of animals to human slavery, seeking to extend them the habeas corpus rights employed to free people from unlawful imprisonment. Some of his allies, clearly, would go much farther, applying the protections that Wise hopes to win well beyond just the highly evolved species at issue.
    The filmmakers follow Wise over several years, capturing both the highs and indignities associated with his efforts. The latter include being treated as something of a novelty, and occasionally a punching bag, on cable news -- the wacky lawyer who says things like, "A person is not synonymous with a human being."
    HBO has a long history of exploring animal rights, including the powerful documentary "An Apology to Elephants," which surely contributed to the environment that recently prompted Ringling Bros. to announce plans to phase them out of its circuses.
    Still, it's possible to wince at the sight of chimps -- especially those shown communicating via sign language -- being confined to tiny cages without fully buying into the "personhood" designation. During the court hearings, which are covered at length, some judges also express discomfort equating their plight with that of enslaved people.
    "Unlocking the Cage" might feel a tad unsatisfying on that score, but it's nevertheless thought provoking. At a time when so many cinematic arguments are cast in black-and-white terms, tipping the scales in one direction, it's refreshing to see one that's content to present a case that leaves room for several shades of gray.
    "Unlocking the Cage" premieres February 20 at 8 p.m. on HBO.