Running time: 90 mins.
Release Date: US-October 16,2015
Country: United States
A cold, intentionally sterile film, this effort from Writer/Director/Producer Michael Almereyda is a fascinating look at the life of Professor Stanley Milgram, famous for a study about obedience that he undertook at Yale University in 1961. Shot in a clinically blue/gray palette, Almereyda eschews the warm, friendly hues of recent biopics like “The Imitation Game”, and has crafted a film that is as quirky and detached as its subject.
Raised in New York City in the 1930’s, Milgram’s early life was heavily influenced by the events of the Holocaust, specifically the eventual trial of Adolph Eichmann. This led Milgram, following up on his doctorate from Harvard, to conduct a series of studies he titled the “Behavioral Study of Obedience” at Yale. It was a groundbreaking, seminal effort to explore the conditions and behaviors that would lead people to indiscriminately follow orders. Ten years later much of this material was published in his book “Obedience to Authority”, which is still taught in Universities and social science classrooms around the world today.
Set up as a clinical test to determine how far a subject would go when instructed to inflict pain on another “volunteer”, the ethics of the study would be questioned, and haunt Milgram for the rest of his life. Ironically it wasn’t until the 1970’s, when Stanford Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, that Milgram’s tests would seem somewhat tame in comparison. It would have been nice had the film touched on what Milgram thought of the Stanford tests, but the filmmakers chose to keep this story focused narrowly on his own work, perhaps not to confuse the similar studies, or dilute Milgram’s story.
The basic set-up of the experiment, which takes up the first act of the film, is that two “strangers” are brought into a laboratory, with one being assigned the role of teacher, and one as student. The student is then hooked up to a machine in another room (still audible to the teacher through the walls). The teacher is then instructed by a laboratory assistant (John Palladino) to administer a test, where the punishment for incorrect answers are increasingly higher voltage electric shocks. What the subject doesn’t know is that the student (Jim Gaffigan) is actually a paid actor hired by the University, and that no actual shocks are being administered. Pre-recorded screams of pain are played back through the walls, along with banging and groans of discomfort, in order to test the subject’s tendency to continue to comply with authority, at ever increasing levels of discomfort. It’s fascinating to witness the reactions of every-day people as they are told to inflict pain on a stranger in another room, and the film captures their raw reactions with great attention to detail, from sweaty concern, to occasional, outright rebellion. None of it is accomplished through any form or physical or mental coercion of the subject, only the calm requests of the laboratory assistant to “please continue”. The end result, which surprised Milgram, and his peers even moreso, was that over 65% of the subjects, regardless of gender or socio-economic background, administered what they thought were dangerous, potentially lethal amounts of electricity, up to the maximum voltage the machine would deliver, simply because they were told to.
The infamous experiment, with its controversial deception of the subjects participating in it, would go on to both elevate, and shackle, Milgram for the rest of his career. Although he would eventually create other groundbreaking public opinion and social networking models, such as the “lost letter” and “six degrees of separation” studies, his obedience experiments overshadowed him to his death, often to his chagrin. The controversy that followed may have cost him tenure at Harvard, as he eventually moved on to teach at City University of New York. After publishing his seminal book on the subject of obedience, he became a media lightning rod, going on the talk-show circuit, with his study even made into a TV movie-of-the-week starring William Shatner and Ossie Davis, hilariously depicted here as if it were a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.
The film is structured with Milgram’s voice-over serving as a continual narration of the events of his life, reminiscent of the 50’s NBC TV show “This is Your Life”. In a choice that may polarize audiences, the tone shifts playfully from sardonic, to observational and pithy, from one moment to the next, with the narrator continuing to explain things even after his own death. It’s a detached, stylized approach, with Sarsgaard delivering a nuanced, introverted performance, that is as subtle and idiosyncratic, as Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking was exaggerated, in “The Theory of Everything”. Jim Gaffigan stands out as the affable ‘Student’, who sits on the other side of the laboratory wall and pretends to be shocked, his performance one of the few truly lighthearted elements in the mix. Winona Ryder is serviceable as Milgram’s wife Sasha, in a restrained, doting role. There are a number of great cameos throughout, with a variety of well-known actors playing the Teacher, including the always engaging John Leguizamo. The only drawback to the structure of the film is that we end up wanting to see more of Leguizamo and Anthony Edwards characters than we do here, assigned only fleeting roles as test subjects. For some reason Taryn Manning is given extra screen time, playing a 50’s housewife who participated in the tests, makeup and hair caked on in an attempt to ground her in the period, with thoroughly unconvincing results.
This is pure cinema, as provocateur, instigator, and playful muse. For students of social sciences and psychology, it’s a must-see look at one of the forefathers of modern day sociology. At it’s heart, “Experimenter” is a sterile, quirky film that may leave you feeling cold, but will certainly provoke and illuminate conversations. Which seems to be a result Milgram would have taken great delight in.