James Marsh, the documentarian who rose to prominence with the Oscar-winning Man On Wire in 2008, is a master at weaving a satisfying narrative out of complex reality; a storyteller at heart, rather than a scrupulous detailer of history. This latest film charts the life of a chimpanzee, Nim, who was raised as if a human child by a group of American scientists during the 1970s, in an attempt to discover if he could learn language. Its (captivating) archive footage is intercut with dramatic embellishments to aid the ebb and flow: when Nim is described as having a tantrum and throwing a chair through a window, we see a blurry sequence depicting just that. It’s skilfully constructed, with emphasis on the ‘constructed’ – but this authorial sculpting is so clear that it barely feels manipulative.
The potential themes are fascinating – the boundary between humans and animals, language acquisition – but it quickly becomes clear that Marsh is less interested in the science of the experiment than he is in the people who conducted it, and their testimonies as recorded by his contemporary interviews. It’s a stance that’s neatly both reflective of and driven by the scientists themselves, who also appear to have been less preoccupied by the chimp’s experience than they were their own. The project’s leader, Herb Terrace, comes across as something of an arrogant creep, apparently bonking everyone in sight whilst neglecting to record any data on Nim’s progress (never mind wellbeing) during the research at all.
There’s also a lot of plain weirdness: for such apparent free-lovers, these people use horribly clinical phrases like ‘sexual contact’ when describing their relationships with each other, and seem oblivious to the fact that actions such as breast-feeding a chimpanzee might be considered outside of normal behaviour. Uncanny shots of Nim dressed in human clothing abound, and you feel sorry for him throughout. Only one truly sympathetic human character emerges: Bob Ingersoll, a primatologist who at least attempts to engage with Nim on his level (if such a thing is possible) and continuously campaigns for his improved living conditions. The contemptuous way in which this evident animal-lover dispenses the word ‘notepad’ when describing another more studious professor is a joy to behold.
The film loses some momentum in its final third, when the half-baked project is given up with vague conclusions, and the oddity gives way to plain sadness as Nim’s lonely latter years are revealed. I found Marsh’s stylistic touches aesthetically pleasing: eerie, slow pans of his static interviewees which reminded me of The Arbor, and huge white block capitals to supply a name upon each introduction. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that its central exposé – of the vanity and peculiarity that can afflict academia – was neither revelatory nor particularly important, compared with what was promised by the set-up. Perhaps the material dictates: the film is disappointing in the same way as the outcome of the botched experiment. But as such it did feel somewhat slight – an incidental, if highly watchable, piece of modern documentary.