July 18, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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PROJECT NIM:  Worth A Ticket – If You Can Stand It


At first I wondered why on earth Fox Searchlight hadn’t grabbed James Marsh’s documentary PROJECT NIM at Sundance, to serve as an unofficial prequel to Big Fox’s release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes next month.  It seemed like a no-brainer:  the true story of a chimp cutely named Noam Chimpsky who was essentially adopted by a human family shortly after his birth in the 1970s, in order to be the subject of an experiment in teaching human sign language to a chimp within a human environment.  And not just any human environment:  this was a family of well-off bohemians (we’d call them “crunchy” now) who owned an Upper West Side brownstone, wrote poetry, and cheerfully allowed Nim (as he was known) to share their alcohol and pot.  Oh, and the mother breastfed Nim herself.  (“It was the 70s,” one of the family explains.)  The story is practically The Royal Tenenbaums before Wes Anderson had even dreamed them up.


Before long, though, I understood why no division of Fox would want Project Nim within a hundred miles of their blockbuster-to-be, because the film becomes as heartrending–and difficult to watch–as any movie in recent memory.  Nim is taken from his off-beat yet loving home, and becomes something like a real-life version of the donkey in Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar, a beast who illuminates the frailty, self-centeredness and sometimes the awfulness of the humans around him.

Chief of the awful–at least that’s how he’s depicted, often with words out of his own mouth–is Dr. Herbert Terrace, the Columbia linguistics professor who had the idea for the experiment.  Terrace lives up to every cliche of the arrogant, heartless clinical scientist. (with an additional bad habit of sleeping with the very young women who work for him.)  Terrace makes it fairly clear that he had little regard for Nim as a living being, and he was responsible for ripping the chimp out of the home where Nim had been raised, finding the surroundings not sufficiently scientific.  Well, maybe so; and although it was wrenching for Nim to leave the people who had become his family, his first stop after that wasn’t a bad place:  an estate owned by Columbia where full-time interns and teachers worked with Nim on language skills.  But again, Terrace uprooted Nim from his life, this time declaring the entire experiment a failure on the grounds that although Nim had learned many signs for words, Terrace deemed Nim’s use simply to be a way of begging for treats, without any real comprehension of their meaning.  (The people who worked with Nim bitterly disagree, and footage in the film seems to prove them right.) Once the experiment was over and Terrace had gotten his small measure of fame, the scientist had no remaining interest in Nim at all.

After that, things got ugly.  Nim was sent to an academic zoo where for the first time in his life, he had to live in a cage (although some of the people there were kind to him, and he made his first contacts with fellow chimpanzees).  When the zoo ran out of money, he was sent to the kind of research lab where drugs for humans are tested on animal subjects.  At that point, Project Nim becomes almost unbearable to watch, and even when Nim is “rescued,” his life is solitary misery for years to come, although his circumstances do ultimately improve.

Marsh does a brilliant job in only 93 minutes, of illuminating the complexities of everyone involved.  Terrace, for all his callousness, explains very clearly how he felt–and didn’t feel–about Nim.  Some of the nicest people who worked with Nim were probably somewhat deluded; the person who seems most evil of all at the research lab has, it turns out, a heart.  And Nim himself is painted clearly–he wasn’t a humanoid, but an animal with all the instincts and actions of one, making it difficult for even the most well-meaning people to help him.

It’s hard to recommend a movie that sometimes makes you want to look away from the screen (although it’s rated PG-13, I’d be careful about bringing children to see it), and despite a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes–the same as Harry Potter!–so far its boxoffice has been puny. Audiences who are able and willing to brave Project Nim, though, will find it as moving and emotionally rich as any film this year.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."