Project Nim

31 Jul

Title: Project Nim
James Marsh
Bob Angelini, Bern Cohen, Reagan Leonard
MPAA Rating: 
PG-13, some strong language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images
93 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
Rotten Tomatoes: 


Let me start this review by just saying that I really loved this film. I seriously did, and I knew there was a high chance of that happening because I loved the subject matter, about Nim, a chimpanzee who in the 70’s was the subject of an investigation that wanted to show that an ape that was raised as a human child could eventually communicate effectively as a human. I knew I was bound to be fascinated by the subject matter, not only because I personally really wanted to hear about it, but because the guy that was going to present it to us was James Marsh. He is the man that in 2008 brought us Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit, that man who in 1974 performed an illegal tightrope walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers. That film I ranked as the 21st best of that year, but in retrospect it should be even higher, because I’ve rewatched it quite a bit and every single time I’m spellbound by how nicely told it is. And I knew I could expect more of that genius storytelling in Project Nim, and I was right.

Because I really was just totally glued to screen while I watched Project Nim, and a lot of that really had to do with how terrific a director Mr. Marsh is, he really knows how to tie it all up together in the best of ways. And it also helps that, much like on Man on Wire, the people you learn about in this film are just super interesting and articulate and always entertaining, that makes the viewing of an hour-and-a-half docu like this something you can enjoy the hell out of because Mr. Marsh is just tremendous when it comes to taking all these interviews and archive videos and just cutting to the heart of the story, and him an Jinx Godfrey, his usual editor, are just fantastic at piecing it all together, because Mr. Marsh just knows really well the precise story he wants to tell, and knows what to give us and what maybe not to give us that much of because it doesn’t work in his vision. It’s just a tremendously well-constructed documentary.

This was just one hell of an absorbing experience for me, an irresistible ride to be on, as the story that started unfolding just eventually got to be more complex to really swallow and you got some really rich storytelling in it. Because this isn’t just a cute documentary about a chimp who started behaving like a human child, not at all, this is in many ways a tragic look at a scientific experiment, and there will be times during the film in which you’ll be left trying to figure out why the team of researchers did some of the stuff they did, and many times no real answer will occur to you. Because behind all of the fascinating stuff that getting a chimp to learn sign language in a human way may entail, there’s a deep human story here as well, as you start grasping all the missteps that were made in how it was all conducted, as Nim was taken from his mother at just two weeks old and thrust into a city existence with a family that had no experience whatsoever with the care of chimpanzees. There was just nothing about this experiment as it’s presented to us that indicated that it would turn out in a way other than failure.

And that’s really the approach Mr. Marsh smartly takes, not one in which he shows us the real results of the experiment, because the actual details of the experiment and the hypothesis and framework for it are actually just skimmed over rather briefly, but instead the approach elected is one much more focussed on the human side of it all, the part of it which deals more with the aftermath of the experiment, and Mr. Marsh expertly know which buttons to push when talking to those involved with the experiment in the present day and quickly enough some very revealing stuff comes to the surface. Because Mr. Marsh really does arrive at some pretty dark territory about human psychology here, about how we’ll do pretty much anything to prove a point, no matter how plain wrong the cost of that may be.

The cost of this specific experiment was, of course, cute little Nim, who had his entire existence thrown through a loophole and was basically forced to go against his very own nature to prove the point a scientist was trying to make. Don’t get me wrong, the people in this documentary aren’t mean to Nim, they genuinely seem to care about him, they just do stuff to him that make you think about how wrong they were in their thinking and that ultimately did no good to the chimp they apparently cared so much for. And Mr. Marsh is just so damn good at how he constructs all of this exploration, he takes a page out of Errol Morris (who also has a new documentary out which I really want to check out) in how the interviews are done, and how there are reenactments and title cards and footage, and he does that to great effect as he creates some spellbinding drama out just a series of interviews about an event that happened nearly three decades ago.

And it’s not as though he creates a sentimental and manipulative take on the story, not at all, I mean you may cry in it, for sure, but he actually doesn’t give his players all that much texture and in most cases it’s just as easy to feel sympathy towards them as it is to view them under a bad light. And that I found terrific, and it showed the power documentaries can so easily have. And it’s just a fantastic showing of human nature as viewed through the story of a chimp, we realize just how selfish we can be, how blindsided by our own egos we can become and how much harm all of that can cause, not only to us, and this is the best part of it all, but also to other species. Just a terrific watch that I cannot recommend enough, Mr. Marsh has done it again.

Grade: A-


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