However, in the hippie-dippie ’70s, a research group actually tried to make a monkey talk to humans. The chimpanzee is named, “Nim Chimpsky,” a dig at linguist Noam Chomsky, a non-believer in animals’ capacity for human conversation. As depicted in the documentary, “Project Nim,” the chimp is taught some 150 signs of English-language words.
A miracle? Maybe.
But, the film directed by Oscar-winner James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) powerfully shows the downside to this particular animal experimentation: Humans.
The chief villain here is Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace. In fact, he’s so vile that in present-day interviews, he seems oblivious to the intense abuse he caused this poor chimp.
First, Nim is dragged away from his screaming mother in an Oklahoma facility. Then, he lives a pampered life in Upper West Side Manhattan, considered one of seven kids of the LaFarge family (mom Stephanie even breastfeeds him). Next, it’s to a pastoral estate in Riverdale, where the signing really sinks in.
Suddenly, Terrace decides the experiment isn’t working and pulls the plug (“Nim can’t talk. He’s simply a brilliant beggar.”). Things go downhill until, horror of horrors, Nim ends up in a sinister site for medical experimentation.
He is rescued somewhat in the end, landing in a Texas farm for abused animals.
Throughout the film, various caregivers are shown teary-eyed with guilt about the Dickensian life of their beloved monkey, even two woman with whom Nim had violent confrontations.
Terrace remains dry-eyed and clinical. A true professional.
I wonder what Nim would have said about that.
Go see “Project Nim.” It’s a tear-jerker.