Nim was the name given to a chimpanzee who was born in an Oklahoma research facility in late 1973. At the behest of a Columbia University professor named Herb Terrace, Nim was removed from his mother’s care at the earliest opportunity and became part of an extended experiment primarily intended to determine whether or not chimps, man’s closest cousin on the evolutionary ladder, could master human language. Initially placed with a bustling family tinged with hippie kookiness, Nim soon wound up in slightly more formalized surroundings in an upstate mansion owned by the New York City college. While he was part of the experiment, the mandate to his handlers was consistent: treat him in much the same way that a human child would be treated while also teaching him to communicate through sign language.
The new documentary Project Nim examines this odd make-up of this only-in-the-seventies experiment, including the heartbreaking aftermath for its subject when the academic endeavor came to an end. It’s a story practically designed to extract pronounced emotional reactions from any empathetic soul who watches it, and director James Marsh wastes no opportunity to crank the natural anguish of the story up a notch or two. One of the goals of most documentarians is finding the emotional arc of their chosen storylines, something Marsh has handily accomplished. If the film can sometimes be called manipulative, it surely can’t ever be dismissed an ineffective.
One of the ways Marsh strengthens the impact of the story is by utilizing recreations that aren’t necessarily differentiated from the archival footage in the film. He employed a similar approach in his excellent and Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, but what was a little off-putting but acceptable in the previous film becomes a more distressing choice here. For one thing, there were clearer divisions between the purely factual and lightly fictionalized in Man on Wire. With Project Nim, the line is far blurrier. Maybe more damaging is the tendency to use to restagings as a means of pounding more sadness into the film, often by emphasizing the grimness of certain turns in Nim’s life. In Man on Wire, the dramatizations were primarily used to offer greater clarity to the physical intricacies of the scheme that resulting in Philippe Petit astride a tightrope strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center. In Project Nim, the same approach is largely unnecessary, making it seem more like emotional bullying than anything else.
As is the case with any other piece of advocacy journalism that needlessly caresses details when the stone cold truth is convincing enough, the real problem Marsh employing this approach is that it subtly undercuts what is otherwise an incredibly powerful depiction of the rumbling thoughtlessly of humanity when it comes to our animal roommates on this planet. Marsh stages compelling interviews with many of the central humans in Nim’s life, allowing them to reveal their varying states of sympathy and callousness. Undoubtedly, it’s Terrace who comes across the worst, reciting amazingly narcissistic rationalizations that absolve him of any moral culpability, even as he acknowledges the dismal circumstances Nim eventually faced as a direct result of the project.
Despite my reservations, I can’t deny the power of Project Nim. The story is deeply sad and certainly worth telling. If Marsh occasionally felt the need to embellish to make absolutely certain that it left everyone watching properly devastated, well, it’s hard to be too critical of that instinct. In his own way, Marsh is simply trying to offer Nim the spirited fight that most of his human protectors tragically chose to turn away from.