Although it promises to be the story of a communicative chimp, James Marsh’s documentary “Project Nim” focuses on the human desire to speak with animals, rather than vice versa. Marsh follows up his Oscar-winning “Man on Wire” with the moving saga of a monkey raised by families under the auspices of a scientific experiment, which eventually goes awry when the ape acts out. It remains unclear whether Nim actually learns sign language on an intellectual level or merely picks up words by rote, but either way, the eccentric people around him routinely steal the show.
The project in question began in 1973, when Columbia University psychology professor Herbert Terrace launched an unprecedented study to determine if chimps raised by human beings could learn to use sign language. Using a mixture of still images, reenactments, archival footage and talking heads, Marsh dramatically recreates the initial removal of the newborn Nim from his mother at a primate study center in Oklahoma. Nim spends his infancy in the care of psych student Stephanie LaFarge, a married woman with children who instantly accepts Nim as one of her own (she even breastfeeds him). So begins the strange progression of caretakers whose time spent with the animal causes them to form deep and possibly dangerous bonds with him.
After LaFarge’s obsession with Nim ruins her marriage, he falls to two more surrogate mothers, both of whom dote over the linguistically-endowed creature as if he were a person with special needs. When Terrace shuts down the project, fearing that the aging Nim has grown too powerful and dangerous, his life grows more dangerous; he faces captivity with other apes with whom he never learned how to interact, and winds up the prisoner of a ruthless laboratory. That incident culminates in one of the more bizarre incidents of Nim’s life, when a lawyer gets involved in the chimp’s case and represents him in a court of law when requesting his release.
Like “Man on Wire,” which followed a man’s mission to walk a tightrope across the two World Trade Center buildings in the early 1970’s, Marsh’s latest portrait focuses on fanatical experts driven to try things no one has done before. The director seamlessly integrates footage of Nim alternately looking smart and beastly alongside his energetic interviewees, whose fascination with Nim’s behavior taps into a universal epistemological wonder. Nim’s capacity to sign 150 words by age five leads to a widespread debate about his depths of his intellect—does he communicate or imitate?—but Marsh subsequently abandons the question, presumably because it interests him less than the impossible challenges of integrating an ape into society with mixed results.
The movie works best when probing the nature of human interactions with Nim: He appears to form a close friendship with the stoner psych major Bob Ingersoll, not only foraging for food with him but also sharing joints. Ingersoll, eventually the central activist involved in saving Nim from becoming a pure experiment, rejects the notion of whether or not Nim can communicate like a person and accepts the emotional qualities involved in how he communicates like an ape. Their scenes together form the strongest sections of “Project Nim,” since only here does it appear that Nim becomes regarded on his own terms rather than those projected onto him. Overall, however, Marsh avoids any serious attempt to unearth the nature of Nim’s actions, backing down from the greater psychological analysis implied by the case. Dealing with the interplay between scientific reasoning and pure wonder, Marsh ultimately allows wonder to win out.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Animal lovers and psychology buffs will flock to the movie based solely on curiosity about its premise, while audiences sympathetic to endangered animals may turn out in droves in much the same fashion that they did for “The Cove.” With the right campaign, “Project Nim” could become a starting point for a public dialogue on animal rights.
criticWIRE grade: B+