“Project Nim:” Review

By: Jordan Magrath

Movie Mash-Up: “Man On Wire” & “Planet of the Apes”

Theatrical releases are really just metaphors for life.  The greatest movies, in my personal opinion, take very realistic human elements and bring them to screen.  They make you grapple with themes, whether it is human nature, spirituality, or what have you, but with entertainment.  Documentaries, on the other hand, do all of this through the lens of truth.  They show, or document, exactly what happened.  They usually are themes stripped of the flashy entertainment.

This is where James Marsh, director of “Project Nim,” strays.

In one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, “Man on Wire,” Marsh recounted the brave tightrope walk between the Twin Towers by Philippe Petit.  He set the entire story up like a heist, even though it was really just about a daring adventure.  It was successful enough to be mentioned on many “Best Of The Decade” lists, and most importantly, it won him an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Marsh’s newest installment, a hit at Sundance, is titled “Project Nim.”  In his newest documentary, Marsh retells the story of Nim Chimpsky, an experimental chimpanzee that was raised as a human.  Nim adapted human characteristics, but struggled to keep his own animalistic qualities.  The documentary does more than just show his human side and captures the humans behind the experiment.  From his first owner to the main experimenter, Herbert S. Terrace, to his true best friend, Bob, “Project Nim” recounts the entire journey from nature to nurture.

Nim has been the subject of scientific conversations for years, and being a Psychology major, I’d heard plenty about the chimp.  As a story, its certainly interesting, but I wouldn’t have guessed an entire document on the science of it would be that entertaining.  It’s not until you peel back the story do you start to see the more interesting parts.  I’m not saying that a chimp learning sign language and communication isn’t amazing, it really is.  However, as a psychologist, I am much more interested in the human function, not the animal’s.  Therefore, I found the characters more compelling.

Marsh’s documentary captured so many different themes and questions without explicitly saying anything.  Is the documentary about animal rights, nature vs. nurture, human nature, animal nature, or all of the above?  Some people would argue this makes it a much better documentary, since it asks so many grandiose questions.  I will agree that it is a good documentary, but I will be a little more cautious compared to some critics.

I think the movie relied a little too heavily on the emotional appeals behind the Nim himself.  If you want audiences to gasp and sympathize, you show them an animal or a baby.  It makes me a little bit angry that a documentary on Little Albert would never get the reaction that this scientific experiment did.  And the Little Albert experiments are a fundamental part of psychology today.

But, really, I can’t fault Marsh for this.  It’s not his fault, more the fault of the audience.  When looking at this piece as a documentary, and cinematic adventure, it has everything a documentary should.  The thing that works the most is, not surprisingly, the style.  The way he chooses to show the story, and reenact some parts, is beautiful, and worth a viewing alone.

And, it’ll make you question all of the questions I raised above, even if I think there are many other scientific experiments that would do this much better.

Rating: B+

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