I was a little trepidatious about this documentary... it can be a lot to be asked to pay $13 to see something that you end up feeling you'd see on television in a month, or offers little more than an animated magazine article. It even begins with logos for HBO and Netflix, causing me a moment of "Great, I'll be able to watch this for free 30 days from now." I am, however, happy to report that it offers enough to completely eradicate that feeling, and furthermore affirms its place in the movie theater just for the amount of attention you will want to give to it.
This is by James Marsh, who made the acclaimed Man On Wire, which a billion people have told me is brilliant. We open in 1973 with Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace getting possession of a baby chimp from a facility in Oklahoma. He wants to do a study on the acquisition of language, which he is going to do by raising this chimp in a human environment, and teaching him sign language, then standing back and watching as he learns to form his own sentences and to tell us his animal thoughts. That was the idea, anyway. They name they give the animal is Nim Chimpsky, a snarky parody of the name of famed linguist Noam Chomsky, who famously postulated that language is unique to humans. The Nim study was meant to flatly disprove his theories and, well, guess who's the monkey now?
So Nim is ripped away from his mother as an infant. This is the sixth baby she's had taken away from her, and the movie describes her as being fairly traumatized. He is placed in the home of Stephanie LeFarge, which includes her husband and seven children, some of them infants. Stephanie's idea is to raise Nim as a human child and let his intellect grow naturally. Nim takes an immediate, territorial dislike to her husband, and displays it by tossing his books around and rejecting him. Stephanie says the entire family delighted in the way Nim would antagonize the husband, which makes one wonder at the dynamics going on in that household. Stephanie was a former student of Terrace's, and it's not long before we find out that she had had an affair with him. She is a hippie mother and let's Nim smoke joints and breast feed from her.
Soon enough Terrace realizes that Stephanie is not teaching Nim anything, and for a supposedly scientific experiment, there is no form or plan to what is happening. So Terrace installs Laura in the household as a teacher for Nim. Tensions between Laura and Stephanie are immediate, as Stephanie feels Laura is there to contradict her and wants to usurp the mother role. We soon discover that Terrace is having an affair with Laura, too! But they "don't think that in any way got in the way of their science." This guy is a real winner. Laura taught Nim several words. Stephanie sees words as the enemy of closeness. At two, Terrace takes Nim away from Stephanie and installs him in a house in the Bronx with Laura. She is joined by Bill and Joyce, who soon got together as a couple themselves. Boy, the 70s, right?
They continue to teach Nim for two more years, during which time Terrace is pretty much gone, described by Bill as an "absentee landlord." Nim learns lots of words--he also grows to several times a human's strength and starts attacking. Then Terrace abruptly dumped Laura, and Laura abruptly left the project--and Nim, who has now lost his third major attachment in life. So you see, their affair didn't affect their science at all. Before Laura left, Nim climbed up to 25 feet above her and leapt onto her, taking her head and bashing it repeatedly into the pavement. It took four men to pull him off.
Nim was becoming sexual, and would sign that he wanted to hug the cat, then get it and start humping it. We see this. A new teacher is brought in, Renee. It's not long before Nim has bitten through her cheek, leaving it as an open flap that allows one to see in to her teeth. Terrace, who has emerged as the worst kind of toxic narcissist, says he "doesn't recall if Renee was taken to the emergency room," and that he was "probably worried about getting sued." Turn the other way and RUN, ladies!
After five years, Terrace abruptly ends the project, rips Nim away from the caretakers he has bonded with, and sends him back to the Oklahoma facility he came from, taking him from a home with close bonds and all kinds of stimulation to a plain cage, described by many as dirty and small like a "prison." It had driven two chimps to murder, and two others to suicide. Nim is also suddenly exposed to other, non-socialized chimps, which he has never before encountered. Terrace says he "feels good about this," because now Nim is being exposed to other chimps, although the facility turned out to be "more primitive than I remembered." Of course, Herb, why would you remember it if YOU weren't going to be imprisoned there, right?
After a year, Terrace returns--with a team of photographers! Nim runs to him desperately, the heartwarming photos are snapped, then Terrace leaves, never to return. Nim stopped eating and in the words of one of the caretakers, "just started to crater." By this time Terrace has called the experiment a failure, saying despite the words he learned, Nim wasn't using language as we know it, he was just a "brilliant beggar." Nim gets attention from caretaker Bob, who takes the chimp out, plays with him and shares joints. Nim by now has learned to sign "stone smoke now." Then this other man buys Nim for the purposes of animal testing. Nim becomes an experiment for the use of harsh hepatitis and HIV drugs. The scenes of Nim (they may be re-enactments, which the film is full of but does not identify) being thrown unconscious on a table, his mouth opened and probed with a full human hand are among the most traumatic--for YOU--moments of the film. Bob is writing to protest Nim's treatment, which annoys the new owner for a while, until he realizes that "Bob is the ONLY one who cared." And Terrace? There's an interview with him in which he's saying "Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do." Oh dear yes, isn't that unfortunate? There simply isn't a THING you can do.
So Nim previously had been the subject of several news articles, and it comes out that he is languishing in this horrible lab. He is bought by a ranch for abused horses. Thing is, it's a horse facility and has no place for chimps, so Nim is thrown in a special cage with lots of toys but no human interaction. The owner quickly gets annoyed at Bob's pestering, and forbids him from visiting. At a certain point Stephanie, the first human "mother," comes to pay a visit. One of the caretakers at the facility says Nim recognized her right away, and she interprets his expression as "Oh yeah, NOW you come." Stephanie thinks it might be a great idea to get into the cage with Nim. He is showing himself extremely violent and agitated by her presence, and the caretakers are telling her DON'T go in there, and her daughter is telling her DON'T go in there, but no, she thinks it might be a pip to go in there. She does, and Nim grabs her by the ankle and starts swinging her entire body around like a rag doll. This brings us to what is undoubtedly the quote of the film, in which her daughter says "The fact that he didn't kill her meant a lot." Yeah--tender moments! You know, little things mean so much.
After ten years the ranch passes to new owners and Bob is allowed to visit. Nim recognizes him immediately and they hang out like they used to. Note that, at least insofar as what the film tells us, we have never heard of Nim being threatening or violent toward Bob. Sometimes it takes a stoner! Bob starts to visit regularly, and the ranch welcomes him. Eventually the facility where Nim came from is closed, and the ranch buys the other chimps that had been there, including a mate for Nim. The film has a provisional happy ending in which it seems that Nim finally gets some peace in his final years.
As I said, often with documentaries, like the lame Food, Inc. or the infuriating King Corn, you come away feeling like "You know, I could have just read an article and gotten a lot more information in an eighth of the time," but this one does what documentaries should do, which is show you things you couldn't just get from an article. Here, it is invaluable to really see the people involved, hear their voices, see the pictures from back in the day, and see their body language. The film is really gossipy, in a good way, so rather than just sucking up a lot of information you get involved with the characters and have an emotional reaction to them and the situations they created. Emotional involvement is also what you get simply from the heartbreaking story of Nim's trials and the abuse he suffered. You will cry.
Another powerful stream of content is the film's revelation of Terrace as an uber-villain. It is powerful because it is instructive not just about HIM, not just about THESE circumstances, but about his TYPE, which becomes larger than the film itself. We must truthfully note that we only know what the film chooses to show us, but in a certain way it's not about him, specifically, he becomes an embodiment of a certain type of person. Here we see a case study one of the most destructive narcissists, this guy who is worried about himself, his glory and his pleasure, and doesn't see why he should worry about anything or anyone else. Other people are just walk-on roles in the movie of HIS life. Most instructive, and frankly scary, is the way he has no consciousness whatsoever that anything he does is wrong. And if he did do something wrong, or if someone got hurt because of a situation he created, why, he simply doesn't remember. So what can he do? He doesn't remember. The scary thing is--he probably REALLY doesn't remember. And if Nim is languishing in a prison-like cage, why, there isn't a single thing he can do. WHAT can he do? Well, the movie makes a nice contrast with Bob, whose hands are also tied, but who WANTED to do something, and wouldn't give up until he did.
We tend to have a sense that bad people KNOW, in some sense, that they are being bad, or at least can be brought to see that. The film's version of Terrace demonstrates that, in fact, there is no way to get these people to have a critical view of themselves, and really one just needs to be smart and stay away from them. So he's having affairs with his students, recklessly beginning a project with not just a living thing, but a strikingly intelligent and sensitive living thing, then dumping when it suits him, showing up with photographers to capture the one moment that demonstrates what a super guy he is, and finally letting a difficult circumstance serve as his excuse from having to take any further responsibility. Narcissists are known to be be devilishly charming and attractive, what with their sense of immediate fun and love of pleasure, and this film demonstrates how sexy and appealing Terrace must have seemed to his naive female students. If I had daughters, I would take them to see this film. They would see not only a really involving story about this chimp, but also a case study in recognizing the kind of guys they need to RUN from.
So there you are, a really excellent documentary that is fascinating, emotionally moving, and leaves you with a ton to think about--not just regarding the issues it directly raises, but a number of others merely suggested by its content. That's what I consider to be the highest use of the form.