Review: Project Nim
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
It takes a village to raise a primate in “Project Nim,” a documentary about the manipulated, and often sad, life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimp who made headlines in the 1970s for being the focus of a headline-grabbing animal language study at Columbia University. Directed by James Marsh, the British talent who brought you the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire,” “Project Nim” takes an assured stance in establishing the consequences of man's insistence on nosing into nature; however, it only dances around the thin line between man and ape it wants so desperately to blur. Through his pitiable existence, Nim is passed from one surrogate parent to another, and each parent, for better or worse, presumably establishes a bond with him akin to that with a human child. But even with some parents, like the first, casually admitting to things like breast-feeding (“It felt perfectly natural!”), “Project Nim” never startles you with any evolutionary revelations. And while its “Apes – they're just like us!” angle might have turned heads 35 years ago, it feels especially fluffy in the age of cloned sheep.
Nim – whose name, of course, is a riff on that of linguist Noam Chomsky – is seen being plucked from his mother's care by the grubby hands of science, turned over to one Herbert Terrace, behavioral psychologist and head of the Columbia project. Convinced that he and his team can teach Nim to communicate via sign language, Terrace is the Dr. Frankenstein of the story – the man behind the curtain who seems to stay at arm's length from his experiment of a son. The ones doing the majority of the hands-on work roll through the film like a suspects gallery, their faces fading out just as quickly as they're introduced. When the breast-feeder leaves the picture, matters grow more eerily organized, with Terrace turning a university-owned mansion into a live-in lab for Nim researchers. When one die-hard veterinarian leaves because of a devastating bite, another, leaping at the chance to “talk to another species,” steps in as if waiting on an assembly line. What Marsh certainly does capture is a cultural microcosm of pseudo-hippie scientists, their collective devotion to animal connection as integral to their demographic profiles as nonchalant trysts with colleagues and tendencies to spend long hours lying in the grass.
What Marsh fails to do is marry his inventive style to his topic, a topic that feels less like territory worth exploring than material for a filmmaker in need of a new project. A fine candidate for best documentary of the 2000s, “Man on Wire” had it all: a largely unknown story that champions heroism and defies expectations; an effervescent dream of a key subject; the brilliant structure of a nail-bating caper film; and seamless artistic tricks that augmented a treasure trove of priceless archival footage. You can sense in “Project Nim” that Marsh had this checklist handy, attempting to recapture the magic of his beloved balancing act. But from head to opposable thumb, his latest is a downgrade, a serviceable effort cowering in the shadow of former glory. There's a good bit of heart in “Project Nim” (the cuddly kind that can reach beyond the arthouse), and like any decent doc about old news, it ably informs viewers of a story that, for them, might have slipped through history's cracks. Mostly, though, it negates that gift of discovery, feeling like filler from a director lazily aping his own work.