Perhaps best seen as a prequel to next month’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Man On Wire director James Marsh’s harrowing documentary tells the sad tale of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee raised as a human boy back in the 1970s.
Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace, one of this summer’s most hissable villians, first installs the chimp with knucklehead grad student Stephanie LaFarge, who breastfeeds Nim and can’t be bothered keeping any scientific records. This lady is a real piece of work, tickled pink when the monkey masturbates, and charged with teaching him sign-language even though she doesn’t know much of it at all. LaFarge’s rather epic lack of self-awareness comes out during some present-day talking head interviews that could pass as outtakes from a Christopher Guest movie.
Things take a turn for the better when Nim moves to an NYU-owned mansion in the Bronx, and is taught to sign by a collective of graduate students who keep falling in and out of bed with each other. Fond of wearing shorts and a T-Shirt and developing a rather unsettling taste for smoking weed, the chimpanzee learns to express himself through simple sentences. The archival footage is frankly astounding, and Project Nim becomes a hairier take on Pinocchio, watching inter-species communications with an ape who thinks he is a real boy.
Too bad nobody ever thought far enough ahead to realize that their pet project was inevitably going to grow up. Nim may think he’s a kid, but he’s also an ape—with massive strength and some hard-wired evolutionary dominance issues better suited for the jungle than a hippie commune.
It all goes from bad to worse when the funding runs out, and we witness a decade of mistreatment and maladjustment, often with the best of intentions. The sinister Dr. Terrace occasionally drops in and out of the picture, callously indifferent to the trauma he’s caused this animal, publically refuting his own amazing discoveries, and at one point idly standing by while Nim is sold off to a medical research facility.
It’s a heartbreaking tale, one full of twists, turns and a couple of unlikely heroes. As in Man On Wire, Marsh lays on the artsy editing effects a bit too thick at times, but there’s no denying the human pull of this animal drama. By the time some of these obliviously cruel academics were done yammering, I was rooting for the picture to end with a shot of the Statue of Liberty on a beach.