The first five minutes of the documentary Project Nim contain more dramatic tension than nearly two hours of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which serves as an odd companion piece. In fact, Project Nim packs more cinematic punch than the James Franco rehash of the Charlton Heston classic.
Before Nim's opening titles roll, we are transported to a remote Oklahoma compound in November 1973. An adult female chimpanzee, Carolyn, has had six of her previous babies stolen by scientists. When humans approached her again in an attempt to take her most recent newborn, Nim, she senses something terrible will happen. A man, identified only as Dr. Lemmon, aims a pistol at Carolyn, shoots her point-blank with a tranquilizer and grabs the baby before Carolyn slumps to the ground. The story of Nim, one of the most celebrated animal experiments of the late 20th century, begins violently--and it goes downhill from there.
Project Nim's unlikely villain is Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University behavioral psychologist. One of the most celebrated social scientists of the 1970s, Terrace comes across in the documentary as a smug, misogynistic piece of shit. He surrounded himself with a series of nubile female grad students, using Nim as his bait. One by one, Terrace hands the chimp over to the women, asking them to raise him as a human or teach him American Sign Language. One by one, as Terrace's relationships with the women deteriorates, so does Nim's care. Through a series of interviews for the documentary, Terrace represents himself as blandly passive. But that doesn't make him any less evil. He was an architect of thoughtless exploitation.
Through much of the 1970s, Nim went from one inappropriate setting to another. Early in the film, we see archival footage of Nim in diapers and human clothes, living in the New York brownstone apartment of Stephanie LaFarge (along with her disapproving husband and seven children). LaFarge begins a cringe-worthy relationship with Nim (even exploring sensuality with the chimp) that threatens her marriage and ultimately her ability to behave rationally.
When Terrace's relationship with LaFarge sours, he transfers Nim to Laura, another of his grad students and sexual conquests. Terrace, with the help of the dean of Columbia, provided no less a surreal setting than a New York suburban mansion for Laura's work with Nim.
Terrace exploited his experiments with Nim, with barely a move not documented by a photographer or camera crew. International media attention followed. But behind the scenes, things were deteriorating rapidly. Nim, like most chimps, would soon grow to 5 feet tall and be six times stronger than an adult human male. If an adult stood up too quickly around Nim, or didn't share his or her food, the chimp's eyes would go cold as he bared his full set of teeth. He had every intention of drawing blood. What followed was even more tragic. The movie is too good to spoil the rest for you.
Project Nim's director is Oscar-winner James Marsh (Man on a Wire). He expertly crafts a story documenting the worst kind of inhumanity: abhorrent selfishness in the name of scientific discovery.