By John Esther | October 16, 2015
Director: Michael Almereyda
Writer: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, John Palladino, Taryn Manning, Anton Yelchin, Kellan Lutz, John Leguizamo, Lori Singer, Dennis Haysbert, Anthony Edwards, Jim Gaffigan, Josh Hamilton
One of the most influential and innovative American psychologists of the 20th century, Stanley Milgram gets some long overdue recognition, via cerebral cinematic biopic form, in the latest film by Michael Almereyda (Nadja; last year’s Cymbeline).
Growing up Jewish during mid-20th century America, Milgram (a stellar Peter Sarsgaard) was deeply affected by WWII and the Holocaust. How could so many people commit so much evil? An incredibly intelligent person who knew better than to assign it to “the brilliance of Hitler,” Milgram wanted to understand the obedience of the populace before authoritative figures.
In 1961, while an associate professor at Yale University, Milgram designed an experiment to see how many people would hurt a stranger if ordered. Each experiment consisted of two people who did not know each other. One person is a “teacher” the other is a “learner” (always played by Jim Gaffigan). Separated by a concrete wall, the teacher asks the learner a question. If the learner answers incorrectly, the teacher punishes the learner by delivering an electric shock to the learner. For each incorrect answer, the punishment-voltage incrementally increases. This continues until the teacher is shocking the learner at 10 times the amount the teacher received at the beginning of the experiment — just to give the teacher an idea the amount of pain the learner would suffer. Despite this awareness of pain inflicted on another human being, 65 percent of the so-called teachers went all the way. Along the way, most of them protested, but the “doctor” (John Pallandino) told them to continue. Even if the teachers did not go all the way, most of them did continue to some point — despite pleas, screams, and even complete silence, from the learner in the other room. The stranger in the other room could be dead for all the teacher knows.
It was all a facade. The teachers in fact were the subjects. No actual shocking went on other than the 45 volts the teacher received at the beginning of the “quiz.” Of course, those who shocked the stranger were very disappointed in themselves for not saying no to authority and instead deliberately inflicted pain on another human being — a stranger who asked for mercy and ofter did not get it.
Milgrams study sent shock waves through the psychology community and, to some small degree, the public at large. Psychologists were hesitant to believe people could be coerced so easily into evil while general readers of the study did not want to believe they would be so easily duped toward violence because he or she was ordered to do so.
Naturally, there was backlash. People called Milgram’s methods deceptive, sinister and manipulative. In some sense, Milgram was torturing the guilt and conscience of his subjects. Those who discovered he or she could be that evil were forced to evaluate their ethical compass. To its credit, Experimenter takes great care to address these issues.
However, whatever meanness there was to his methods, Milgram’s findings were disturbing and, more importantly, irrefutable.
Unfortunately for the well-intentioned Milgram, the controversy surrounding the experiment would overshadow some of Milgram’s other experiments, which also had a lot of value and to which our culture owes quite a debt.
For example, Miligram’s “Small World” experiment is the basis for our notion of “Six Degrees of Seperation” (not Kevin Bacon’s movies). His “lost letter” experiment illustrated how people were likely to help strangers based on the stranger’s supposed color of skin or content of character. Or, have you ever heard of that experiment where someone stands on a crowded street and looks up toward the sky and passerbys stop and look, too? The more people look up, the more others join them. Yes, that was Milgram’s experiment, too.
Indeed, Milgram created and enabled a lot of fantastic experiences, dissecting the human psyche. With such fun and incisive material it would be difficult to make his life into a boring film.
Oddly enough, while Milgram has been referenced numerous times in TV, pop psychology and even in songs, up until now there was not a feature film about the influential thinker.
Thankfully, so. And there is no foreseeable reason to make another one. One of the more unique filmmakers working today, Almereyda proves to be a perfect fit for this kind of material.
Rather than create this aloof professor we watch from a distance, Almereyda delightfully goes Brechtian in various sorts of ways. Milgram speaks to the camera or in voiceover. The film’s design (art direction by Andy Eklund; set decoration Nadya Gurevich) often looks like a scene out of an experimental film or live theater, without going idiosyncratically “experimental” or “live theater.” Cinematographer Ryan Samul plays with shades of gray to reflect such gray matters regarding grey matter and the morale of people in the face of crowds, authority and prejudices. Yet, there is a sense of joy in what Milgram was aiming for, even if the results were sometimes less than pleasant and his life was cut short at the age of 51.
In other words, Experimenter seems to believe, and illustrate, that the best way to learn is while having fun (not getting punished with pain); and Experimenter is one very playful, enjoyable film.
Part of that enjoyment is the film’s knowing what the big, underlying question to Milgram’s most influential experiment is asking the viewer. In two (three) scenes, there is an elephant walking down a hallway. The hallway serves as a metaphor for narrative while the elephant reflects that idiom about the large issue in the room which viewers may wish to ignore yet is staring them in their light-flickering faces: How much am I an individual in the realm of authority, conformity, and being connected to others?
Which leads me to my own gripe with Milgram’s work. For a psychologist Milgram is surprisingly very keen on free will. More Sartrean than Freudian, he seems to suggest that people have free will and that they always have a choice, as if predetermination and nature have very little to do with one’s own actions.
Complimenting these tropes about ideas, behaviors and modes of subjugation, Experimenter addresses the personal life of Milgram, giving a clear nod to his greatest supporter, his wife, Alexandra “Sascha” (Winona Ryder), and those others who helped create such innovative experiments with mesmerizing results.
Running at a dynamic, pleasurable 108 minutes, Experimenter is a film of a higher order. Perhaps the greatest compliment I could offer it is that I wished it kept on going much longer than its running time. So many ideas; so little time.