Directed by James Marsh; BBC Films, Passion Pictures, Roadside Attractions

Why can’t we teach our chimpanzees how to speak? Well, that’s a no-brainer. The mastery of grammar and diction and the structuring of a fancy vocabulary are obviously beyond the reach of a chimp. Still, with intensive human help, couldn’t this primate charmer at least master sign language and eventually learn to ape the way human beings think and act and communicate with one another?

That was a possibility Herb Terrace, a Columbia University professor, set out to explore back in the early seventies. And for more than 25 years, Terrace--a natural-born hustler--and his revolving battery of pot-smoking, sexually adventurous female assistants toiled in and out of the lab to do a radical makeover on a spirited scamp named Nim Chimpsky. The results of the experiment, which turned out be both more and less than the self-promoting professor bargained for, are scrutinized here in astonishing depth by James Marsh, whose “Man on Wire” won the Oscar for best documentary of 2008.

I urge you to rush out and see this extraordinary film, but let me first caution you not to expect a comical, fuzzy-warm Disneyesque fable. Steel yourself instead for the obscenely inhumane treatment of a defenseless animal--a newborn chimp stolen from his shrieking mother by a wealthy New York airhead who had been sent to a remote region of Oklahoma on this mission by her occasional lover, Columbia University pseudo-science prof Herb Terrace. For a while, Nim is pampered like a prince in a Manhattan brownstone by Terrace's lady friend, her hippie-poet hubby and their children, as well as on the college campus (where the chimp is subjected to bogus sign-language lessons). He is also incited to extreme violence, a situation that results in a grotesque attack on one of his "teachers." It is at this point that Professor Terrace, fearing a major scandal and a likely loss of income, scraps Project Nim and unceremoniously dumps the chimp back in Oklahoma.

Before long, in a sequence of events so harrowing that you may feel compelled to close your eyes and press your fingers to your ears, Nim is seized and bound and electrically jolted into an experimental medical program, ostensibly for the purpose of controlling disease among the human population. It saddens me to say that this lengthy, brutal endeavor carried the seal of approval from New York University! So much for the connection between higher education and benevolent science.

And, yes, still more horrors are visited upon Nim, who should never, ever have been taken from his mother. But not all men are beasts; there was one true hero who managed to extend the gift of freedom to the chimp before his peaceful death at the age of 26. In a sense, Nim died a champ. Need I name the academic who is this story's biggest chump?