The movie also features a chimpanzee.
His name — a human imposition, like everything else in this creature’s remarkable, heartbreaking life — is Nim Chimpsky. In the 1970s he enjoyed (or endured) a season of fame as a research subject. Shortly after his birth at an Oklahoma laboratory, Nim was taken from his mother’s side and delivered to New York, where he became part of an experiment, led by a Columbia professor, Herbert Terrace, to determine whether an ape could be taught human language.
It is a bit curious that Marsh’s film has nothing to say about the roots of Nim’s name, a jab at the influential linguist Noam Chomsky, whose theories about the innateness and uniqueness of language to humans were the implicit target of Dr. Terrace’s work. His project was an effort to discern if a chimpanzee could learn sign language and if that learning could proceed beyond the mimicry of specific gestures into the creation of grammatical sentences. If Nim could be raised more or less as a human child, and could master human communication, that would challenge the Chomskyan idea of language as a special, hard-wired trait fundamentally separating us from other animals. (Koko the gorilla, another celebrated signing ape born around the same time as Nim, also tested this hypothesis.)
Project Nim glances briefly at the scientific controversy that shaped Nim’s fate, but Marsh is less interested in comparatively dry matters of linguistics or neurobiology than in a humid, messy domain of identity and emotion that has, in the past, been the terrain of psychoanalysis. And of literature: Nim, thrown from one home to another, vulnerable to cruelty and neglect and dependent on the kindness of strangers, resembles the titular hero of a Dickens novel, an orphan buffeted by circumstances whose biography is also a fable of individual virtue and social injustice.
A helpless innocent compared with his protectors and tormentors, Nim bounces like a long-armed David Copperfield from one unnatural home to another — a Manhattan brownstone, an estate in the Bronx, a medical testing center upstate — living through periods of pastoral bliss and gothic horror. His tale is Dickensian, but also Kafkaesque, since he is at the mercy of powerful forces beyond his ken or control.
Red Peter, the learned ape in Kafka’s devastating Report to an Academy, dreams, above all else, of a "way out," and to watch footage of the young Nim at play and in confinement is to infer that he must have known a similar longing. Unlike the Kafka character, however, this educated primate never acquired enough words to tell us his story, and so Project Nim relies on human interlocutors, some of whom cared about Nim a great deal, almost all of whom wind up telling us more about themselves.
They are a remarkable collection, often at odds and sometimes in bed with one another, with Nim as their pawn, rival or surrogate child as well as the blank slate on which they inscribe their fantasies and intellectual conceits. Dr. Terrace, speaking with precision and detachment in present-day interviews, is either resigned to being the film’s designated villain or oblivious to being set up for that role. His former colleagues, some of them also former lovers, don’t have much good to say, and the ’70s footage, showing an academic dandy with a comb-over, a BMW and a Burt Reynolds mustache, is hardly flattering.
For the first few years of Nim’s life, Dr. Terrace was the master of his fate, though not always a significant presence in the chimp’s day-to-day routine. After leaving Oklahoma, Nim was installed in the home of Stephanie LaFarge, where he became part of a household that included seven children, at least one dog and Ms. LaFarge’s husband, a poet and "rich hippie" who appears to have been Nim’s romantic rival.
Ms. LaFarge, an open and genial interview subject, drops a few casual bombshells testifying to what the psychobabble of our own time might call boundary issues. "It was the ’70s," her now grown-up daughter Jenny Lee says, but even then, and even on the Upper West Side, it might have been a bit unusual for a woman to breastfeed a baby chimpanzee.
After a while, Nim was transferred to an estate in Riverdale, cared for and tutored by young people — most of them women — who come before Marsh’s camera in middle age to recall the pleasures and dangers of working with their spirited simian charge. It is hard not to be charmed by the affection that passes between these humans and the chimp, or to appreciate what seems to be a reciprocated effort at communication. But at the same time it is difficult to avoid a certain queasiness at the sight of a wild creature forcibly and irrevocably alienated from his nature — dressed in clothes, tethered and caged, smoking a joint out in the woods with his pals. You laugh, sometimes, to force the lump out of your throat.
There is no doubt that Nim was exploited, and also no doubt that he was loved. Marsh, by allowing those closest to Nim plenty of room to explain themselves, examines the moral complexity of this story without didacticism. He allows the viewer, alternately appalled, touched and fascinated, to be snagged on some of its ethical thorns. He also engages in a bit of manipulation, using sleight-of-hand re-enactments and Dickon Hinchliffe’s nerve-rackingly melodramatic score to sensationalize a drama that hardly requires it.
Marsh, whose last documentary was the lovely, Oscar-winning Man on Wire, is a patient listener and an able storyteller, but the subject of Project Nim is so rich and strange that it might have benefited from the hand of a wilder, bolder filmmaker. An obsessive like Errol Morris or Werner Herzog might have pushed beyond pathos and curiosity, deeper into the literal no man’s land that lies between us and our estranged animal relations. But it is also possible that our language and our science do not equip us to understand the truth about Nim — or the truth about us that he may have discovered through years of rigorous, involuntary research.