Between two worlds: 'Project Nim,' the story of a chimp and the people he lived with, raises question as to who is more human
Back in the 1990s, the British rock group XTC wrote a song called “The Smartest Monkeys,’’ a sardonic tip of the hat to the simian subspecies that happens to rule the planet. On the evidence of “Project Nim,’’ I’m not sure we deserve even that much credit.
The new documentary from director James Marsh - his last nonfiction film was the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire’’ - is an engrossing and enraging drama of one chimpanzee and his life’s journey across a landscape of human folly. It’s an epic in ape years: If Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin had collaborated, they might have come up with something like this, a multi-chapter melodrama with heroes and villains who keep changing sides and a small central figure who was profoundly wronged in the name of spurious science.
The chimp named Nim Chimpsky was 2 months old when he was taken from his mother at an Oklahoma ape facility and given to professor Herbert Terrace, of Columbia University. It was 1973 and liberation was in the air; Terrace, a behavioral psychologist who wanted to teach Nim sign language as a way of studying interspecies communication, made his first mistake by giving the infant chimp to a former graduate student, Stephanie LaFarge, to raise as “human’’ in her own large family.
LaFarge is the sort of upper-middle-class narcissist who gave 1970s social freedoms a bad name, and in modern-day interviews she retains an irritating cluelessness about the divide between humans and animals. She breast-fed Nim, allowed him to dominate her family, taught him his first signs while keeping no scientific records. “He was my lifeline, my buddy, and he was bringing out in me a freedom to deny authority,’’ is how LaFarge recalls their relationship. A more foolish surrogate mother is hard to imagine.
After two years, Terrace took Nim away from LaFarge and installed him in a cavernous university-owned mansion up in the Bronx, along with a staff of eager young chimpologists. Things went well at first: Nim learned over 125 signs and strung them together in sentences: “Me eat drink more,’’ “Tickle me Nim play,’’ and so forth. There was media coverage, including a glowing New York magazine cover story. The grad students, shaggy idealists then and wisely wary now, fell in and out of love with each other and dedicated themselves to the great project.
And, ultimately, no one could get around the fact that they were dealing with a 150-pound ape whose immense strength and dominance issues were normal in the wild and problematic on a rolling Bronx estate. The Columbia experiment was brought to an end in 1977, after which “Project Nim’’ becomes a heartbreaking pilgrim’s progress, with Nim shunted over the years from one situation to the next. Some are well-intentioned, others are purely horrific, and all measure the distance between an animal and the humans who only see what he means to them and never who, or what, he is.
I’d argue that the movie itself rarely really sees Nim, and then only in his moments of anger or pining. As a meditation on human kindness and cruelty, though, “Project Nim’’ gets richer as it goes, building a slow, incremental portrait of a species afflicted with blindness and blessed with occasional clarity. The good guys and bad guys here are never who you think: A pothead animal keeper at the Oklahoma compound moves from the periphery of the story to become Nim’s truest friend; the director of a medical research laboratory turns out to be an angel in disguise.
The most unforgivable villain, of course, is Terrace, if only because he remains so blandly oblivious to the suffering he caused (and not just for Nim). The footage of the complacent academic visiting the chimp a year after abandoning him - Nim rushes over to Terrace, signing frantically as if begging to be taken home, wherever that is - thoroughly upends your sense of which species has a soul.
Marsh tells this story clearly and sympathetically, and he has the backlog of film and the witnesses to do so. His only misstep is - as in “Man on Wire’’ - to patch over blank spots in his narrative with artily shot reenactments. He doesn’t need them, and they cast only a passing cloud over the veracity of “Project Nim.’’ In all other respects, this is the most movingly human story you’re likely to see all year.