The story of a chimpanzee who is moved into a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to be raised as a human and taught sign language sounds like the premise for a Disney live-action comedy, but Project Nim, which opens today in selected cities, is anything but a family-oriented feel good. Director James Marsh won an Oscar in 2009 for Man on Wire, his soaring and inspirational account of Philippe Petit’s legendary high-wire act between the Twin Towers in 1974. This saga, which begins in the 70s, is earthbound in the most sobering ways.
Again using a variety of seamlessly integrated sources, including archival footage, interviews, and reenactments, Marsh keeps Nim’s story at a chimp’s-eye level. We are in the baby animal’s cage at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma, where at less than two weeks of age he is removed from his mother at the behest of Dr. Herbert S. Terrace, a Columbia University psychologist. The photograph is misleading, as Terrace, who wanted to teach a primate to communicate in American Sign Language and felt that raising a chimp as human would be the best way to do so, had comparatively little to do with the animal once he dropped him off at the brownstone of Stephanie LaFarge, one of his former students. That LaFarge’s only real credential for the experiment is that she is the mother of three children (and stepmother to four more via a recent remarriage)–and a one-time lover of Terrace, a seducer of his students in a more freewheeling time–points to trouble ahead for the perplexed creature, named “Nim Chimpsky.” My guess is that Noam Chomsky, who theorized that the language was the exclusive province of humans, took the joke in stride, but he would have been horrified by the careless scientific method on display.
The early scenes of Nim making a home in Manhattan and living a bon vivant lifestyle are expectedly cute and humorous–with an increasing edge. Feeling possessive of Stephanie, his game if hapless “mother,” Nim turns on her new husband and otherwise acts out, as Terrace, infuriatingly, withdraws. There was no rhyme or reason to the research, other than a vaguely defined hope that informal signing (LaFarge was not schooled in it) and a family atmosphere might get Nim talking. “It was the 70s,” says LaFarge’s daughter, ruefully, of the whole trying experience. You have to wonder where Columbia was in all this; the institution kept a tighter rein over the ghostbusters.
That Nim’s big city misadventures end is only the beginning of his sad odyssey. In classroom and university settings Nim proved quite adept at signing, though his truculent–that is to say, chimp-like–behavior earned him a failing grade with Terrace. Though Nim was intelligent and accomplished, it wasn’t enough for the doctor; he hadn’t risen above his species, and was a “brilliant beggar,” unable to form sentences and signing only to get what he wanted. (Had Terrace ever been around kids? They’re pretty brilliant beggars, too.) When Nim turned five Terrace declared the experiment a flop–what, then, to do with his subject?
The answer will have you asking what is human and what is animal. In deeply disturbing sequences Nim, a star in the city, is returned to the confines of a cage in Oklahoma, where he falls into an understandable depression. There are well-intentioned people looking after his welfare, notably Bob Ingersoll, a psychology graduate who is the hippie-ish antithesis to the enigmatic and troubling Terrace. The overall record, however, is one of befuddlement and neglect, as the institute goes under and Nim is sent to New York University’s medical research lab, setting up a novel courtroom challenge and a final change of scenery for Nim, whose venture in our world takes years off his life.
Compelling to say the least, taking us on a complex journey in a brisk and thoughtful 93 minutes, Project Nim raises many vexing questions about our presumed dominion over the animal kingdom. There are greater failures besides Terrace’s in our communications with other species. Project Nim gives one representative a voice, one that’s clearly worth listening to.