Sundance Review: Project Nim And Bobby Fischer Against The World

By Katey Rich 2011-01-21 14:15:32discussion comments
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Project Nim and Bobby Fischer Against The World: two documentaries, each produced through HBO Films and airing on that channel within a few months, both viewed by me in the first frenzied hours of my Sundance Film Festival trip. Each of them directed by veteran and acclaimed documentarians, each of them opening on pivotal moments in 1972, each of them marveling at both the extent and cruelty of human ingenuity. One of them focuses on an inscrutable, anti-charismatic figure, capable of both deep intelligence and startling damage, loved by millions but understood by no one; the other focuses on a chimp.

The movies share similarities beyond the shallow fact that I saw them in close proximity, of course-- both employ interviews with subjects who look directly at the camera (Errol Morris, your influence runs deep) but are unable to interview the main characters themselves for obvious reasons. Both take a look back at relatively recent history to figure out the reasoning behind a strange idea that took hold in the 70s. In Project Nim, the idea started with Columbia professor Herb Terrace, who wanted to see what would happened if humans raised a chimpanzee from birth and taught it sign language (as it turns out, a lot happened, and not much of it good). In Bobby Fischer, the broader trend is the early-70s chess craze that Fischer inspired, but it also raises major questions about how we can revere chess geniuses when so many, Fischer included, prove utterly incompatible with human society.

For all the similarities, though, James Marsh's Project Nim-- the director's follow-up to the astonishing Man on Wire-- is clearly the superior film, for both its surprises and its astute grasp on the many troubling questions it uncovers. Nim, born at an Oklahoma facility in 1972 and ripped away from his mother at two weeks old, lived a life of twists and turns worthy of Odysseus, and is cared for by a series of unpredictable, often wildly misguided humans who have you questioning more than once how we came to be the superior species. The film's moments of hilarity-- Nim's first human caretaker breastfeeding him, his last human friend swearing he'd rather hang out with Nim than Jerry Garcia-- lead right into the tragedy, as we're reminded again and again how the best-laid human plans can be foiled by the simple drive of nature. The movie also boasts an incredible villain in Herb Terrace, he of the bipartite mustache and completely flat affect who has no regrets about Project Nim, even when faced directly with its horrific unforeseen consequences.

Bobby Fischer, on the other hand, suffers entirely thanks to his subject, who is as unknowable and exasperating as the chimp Nim but far less likable. Director Liz Garbus clearly sympathizes with the chess genius, who displayed severe social awkwardness even when appearing on TV's I've Got A Secret at age 15 and showed clear signs of mental illness, but she never quite completes the argument that we ought to care as much about the man as his incredible public accomplishments. A title at the beginning unquestioningly calls chess "the game of kings," but none of the many chess expert talking heads compellingly explain why Fischer's 1972 match against Russian Boris Spassky-- a media spectacle, to be sure--demands the full documentary treatment nearly 40 years later. And when we lose interest in the sport itself we're still stuck with Fischer, a prickly kid who morphed into an anti-Semitic loon as an adult, who even with a troubled childhood and the lifelong unwanted media attention, remains utterly unsympathetic.

In Project Nim we witness the emotional impact Nim had on his human keepers (or in the Terrace's case, the incredible lack thereof), and we're offered many educated guesses about Nim's state of mind, though Marsh remarkably avoids falling into the trap of anthropomorphizing his main character. In Bobby Fischer it's clear that many people cared passionately about the man and the outcome of his matches-- Boris Spassky is visibly agitated when Fischer shows up late for matches, and several fellow chess players fret openly about his later meltdown-- but Garbus never really encourages us to engage with their feelings, just attempt again and again to break down Fischer's walls, something that's clearly an impossible task. The film is handsomely constructed and thoroughly engaging, but may prove in its distance from the subject that the mercurial Fischer really is impossible to truly know.

Unlike so many of the Sundance films that head to the festival with unclear fates, both Project Nim and Bobby Fischer Against The World will be available to watch on HBO within the next few months, and both are well worth your time, though Project Nim is one I and everyone else will be telling you to see at all costs (there were plenty of sniffles and all-out sobs in last night's press screening). If you're ready to see some guff given to the 70s and crazy ideas and people therein, both of these movies have exactly what you're looking for.
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