REVIEW: Project Nim

30 01 2015

Director James Marsh won an Oscar for combining archival footage, recreations, and present-day interviews around Phillipe Petain’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in “Man on Wire.”  (Good luck to Robert Zemeckis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in their attempt to top it with their fictional “The Walk.”)  His documentary follow-up, “Project Nim,” plays more by the standard rulebooks, but it still works remarkably well.

The film follows a strange cast of characters surrounding one chimp named Nim who researchers believed could develop the capacity for language if raised like a human child.  The experiment occurs in the 1970s, and it naturally draws some very curious players from more radical countercultural and hippie circles.  Their experiment raises some fascinating questions as it progress, most of which relate to our own humanity and what separates and distinguishes us as a species.

Getting to those head-scratchers, though, proves a little more emotionally engaging for unconventional reasons.  Marsh is obliged to stay faithful to the events that transpired, although that does not make watching the cringeworthy actions of some of the participants any more palatable.  As many act in manners that are at best ill-advised and at worst completely unethical, “Project Nim” becomes just as much an exercise for the jaw (which will often hit the ground in awe) as for the brain.  Marsh ought to receive special commendation for somehow maintaining neutrality when talking to people who thought it was acceptable to give drugs and sexual stimulation to a chimp.  B+3stars

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