For anyone that has taken a psychology 101 course has heard of Stanley Milgram. His infamous social obedience experiment showed how ordinary people could be led to hypothetically torture other humans. The fascinating aspect of the film ‘Experimenter’ is how director Michael Almereyda focuses more on the research rather than the controversial man himself. This makes the story play out less like a conventional biopic and more like one of Milgram’s social psychology experiments. The audience is placed in the hot seat so to speak as they are treated like one of his subjects. Peter Sarsgaard’s fine deadpan performance and Winona Ryder’s wide-eyed portrayal of his devoted wife lead off a notable cast of actors.
The film opens in a Yale lab where Milgram conducted his first experiment in 1961. Subjects were invited to participate in a study in which one person (the teacher) administers electric shocks to a second person (the learner) in a separate room if he gets the multiple-choice questions wrong. What the person administering the shocks doesn’t know is that the learner (Jim Gaffigan) is actually working with Milgram and not receiving any shocks. After each wrong answer, the teacher (played by several credible actors: Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin) delivers increased shocks with higher voltage. Through a two-way mirror, we see Milgram studiously taking notes regarding each test subject’s mannerisms and stress levels. The intriguing outcome of the experiment is how many of them continue to press the switches even though they clearly hear the learner screaming in pain.
Why do these people go all the way? This is a question that the audience is forced to ponder too. Before we know it, Milgram is walking down an office corridor breaking the fourth wall and talking directly at us. Out of nowhere, a large elephant surreally walks in the room. Milgram talks to us like we are sitting in his classroom during a lecture. We find out his interest in the obedience study is related to the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. How can ordinary people do such reprehensible acts to others without feeling any guilt? He theorizes the role of obedience plays in turning individuals into instruments of the state. His controversial study was criticized by many in academic circles and contributed to him not getting tenure at Harvard. He eventually became a professor at City University of New York Graduate Center where he conducted several other experiments touched on by Almereyda throughout the film.
Migram’s wife Sasha (Ryder) acts as a substitute for the viewer. When they first meet at a cocktail party, Milgram comes off as eccentric but there is something that draws her into his world. She is fascinated by his experiment and even wants to feel what it is like to get shocked. Almereyda uses rear-screen projected backgrounds when they drive in a car or visit the house of an old mentor. This may jar the viewer out of the drama but it is possible that the director never wants the audience to forget that even cinema is an illusion. It’s a clever device to remind the viewer never to take anything they see at face value. There is even a humorous scene about a 1970s TV adaptation of the study taking place with William Shatner starring as Milgram. Between takes, Shatner asks the professor questions to show that he fully understands the meaning behind the study.
Another notable research study shows the “six degrees of separation” concept originated with Milgram’s “small world experiment” that tracks chains of acquaintances in the United States. He also demonstrated in another fascinating study how people will look up at something in increasing numbers if others are looking up at something. Yet it is the controversial obedient study that he is remembered for and had to defend for years as being fraudulent. Through it all, Sarsgaard’s performance simmers as he reveals the ego of Milgram. In the end, he believes that people can be puppets but still have free will. The way director Almereyda shoots the film expertly shows us the puppet strings. Today, Milgram is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of social psychology.
‘Experimenter’ is now playing in select theaters and is available on VOD http://www.magpictures.com/experimenter/. Check out the official Magnolia Pictures trailer https://youtu.be/sngGqBOLWaI.