Film Review: Project Nim

James Marsh spins another gripping, if occasionally superficial, true-life yarn in his follow-up to the Oscar-winning doc <i>Man on Wire</i>.

With Project Nim, James Marsh—the British director who glides easily between documentaries like Man on Wire and narrative features like the second entry in the recent Red Riding trilogy—introduces contemporary audiences to another great slice of ’70s history that has since fallen by the wayside. In 1973 (one year before Philippe Petit did his infamous skywalk between the World Trade Center towers that was depicted in the Oscar-winning Wire), a Columbia University psychology professor named Herbert Terrace embarked on a unique experiment designed to once again test the age-old nature-vs.-nurture debate. Dubbed “Project Nim,” the experiment placed a baby chimpanzee cheekily named Nim Chimpsky (after the linguist Noam Chomsky) with a series of caregivers, who would teach him to communicate with American Sign Language as if he were a human child. In this way, Terrace hoped to determine whether it was possible for a chimp to carry on conversations with humans and, if so, what impact that might have on his behavior.

Soon after his birth, the chimp was first placed with one of Terrace’s students, Stephanie LaFarge, who brought Nim home to her Manhattan home to live with her husband and young children. In his infancy, he was a delightful houseguest, but not long after passing the two-year mark, he became increasingly difficult to control. (Not unlike, as every parent knows, what happens to a human baby when he or she hits the aptly named terrible twos.) So Terrace moved Nim to a crumbling mansion in upstate New York, where a rotating crew of students and volunteers cared for him and continued his ASL education.

The freewheeling, communal spirit of the ’60s was apparently very much in evidence on the grounds of that retreat, with Nim’s minders casually passing joints around and falling in and out of relationships with one another. (Terrace himself had a romance with one of his assistants and the inevitable nasty breakup took its toll on everyone involved in the experiment.)

By the time Project Nim ended in 1977, the chimp had mastered 125 signs and used them regularly to speak to the men and women caring for him. Nevertheless, Terrace deemed the entire experiment a failure, concluding that although Nim had memorized a number of signs, he could only parrot them back in specific circumstances, typically in situations where he was requesting or demanding something. What he couldn’t do was use language to really converse with another person; if most human conversations are like extended improvisations, Nim could only stick to a very specific script.

Following the project’s conclusion, Nim’s life took the first in a series of sad turns when he was sent to live at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. Suddenly deprived of all the familiar human faces he had been surrounded by for years, the chimp had difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings. But worse was still to come: After the Institute’s funding ran out, Nim was sent to a research lab from which he was only freed after activists took up his case. Eventually, he wound up living at the privately funded animal sanctuary Black Beauty Ranch until his death in 2000, but even that refuge was not without its problems, among them the lack of appropriate space and equipment for a fully grown chimp.

Skillfully weaving together archival material with recent interviews with most of the principals involved in Project Nim (as well as some of the men and women who cared for the chimp later in his life), Marsh has constructed a film that’s sure to have wide appeal beyond the usual audience for documentaries. Indeed, Project Nim is paced like a narrative film, with some surprise twists and wrenching emotional moments, particularly the segment dealing with Nim’s time in the research lab.

At the same time, though, those scenes—along with the movie’s general depiction of Terrace who, it must be said, doesn’t do himself any favors with his self-absorbed, sometimes startlingly oblivious commentary—do point to a larger flaw with the movie, namely that Marsh seems to overtly side with the subjects who deem Nim a special, unique soul. Certainly his circumstances were unique, but Terrace’s argument that—signing ability aside—Nim ultimately remained a typical chimp does carry a certain weight too. In general, scientists don’t come off looking particularly great in this film; instead, Nim’s boosters are frequently given the last word in any disagreements over the extent of his abilities.

Marsh has understandably opted to take the crowd-pleasing approach to this fascinating story, but one comes away from the film with the sense that there are deeper, more complex questions provoked by Project Nim that sadly go unexplored.