Reflecting back on the lengthy experiment that sought to determine the linguistic propensities of apes in the 1970s, one of the interviewees of James Marsh's Project Nim declares, "We exploited [the animal's] human nature without understanding his chimpanzee nature." Spearheaded by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace, the eponymous project involved raising an ape named Nim Chimpsky in a human family, teaching it sign language, and determining whether or not it possessed the ability to understand grammar and syntax—and then cruelly discarding the test subject at the end of the experiment. Highly critical of both the project and the afterlife of the maltreated Nim, Marsh's film is filled with exclamations like the one quoted above, asserting the difference between man and chimp and the folly of projecting human desire onto wild animals. And yet, to drive home the pathos of Nim's mistreatment, the director frequently makes questionable use of the creature's apparent similarity to human beings, trading complex analysis for easy sentiment.
Actually, the degree to which chimps resemble and differ from humans is the chief thread running throughout the first half of the film, a compelling, slicked-up bit of storytelling that Marsh presents with a combination of glossy recreations, interviews with the principal players shot against abstract backgrounds that look like art-gallery walls stripped of paintings, and often fascinating archival footage (as when Nim gets cozy with a beloved cat). From the chimp's early days with a hippie family in Manhattan to his long residence at a Riverdale estate under the largely absentee guidance of the vaguely sinister Dr. Terrace and his comely young female assistants, both Nim's human and animal sides are granted equal focus. Yes, the chimp learns to use a toilet and even wipe himself and proves quickly adept at sign language, but he also brutally attacks nearly everyone he interacts with, in one case ripping out a woman's cheek.
After Nim hits five years old, Terrace ends the experiment, shipping the animal back to his Oklahoma birthplace where he remains caged in what might be described pointedly as "inhuman" conditions. The remainder of the film tracks the chimp's subsequent ups and downs: his befriending of a sympathetic Deadhead caretaker, his transfer to a research center as a subject for experimentation, and his eventual retirement to a relative measure of happiness at a Texas ranch. But after posing essential questions about the differences between man and ape in the film's first half, it's dispiriting to see Marsh deploy a rhetorical strategy of simply assuming human/chimp equivalence in order to stoke outrage at Nim's post-experiment treatment. In fact, the film was never that interested in probing the questions that preoccupied Terrace in the first place, dismissing that figure as an ominous presence only interested in burnishing his public image. Instead, Marsh luxuriates in footage of Nim hanging out with his hippie caretaker, sharing a joint (yup, chimps like weed), or invoking our indignation as he shows the ape strapped to an operating table at a test facility while strings run riot on the soundtrack. Yes, animal cruelty is a terrible thing, but surely the principal interest in Nim's story lies elsewhere than in simply exposing the cruel circumstances to which this creature was subjected.