Experimenter | Review
Experiment This: Almereyda Revisits Classic Social Psych Progenitor
American filmmaker Michael Almereyda brings to the screen a pseudo-biopic on one of the more famous social psychologists, Stanley Milgram, whose name should, at the very least, rumble through the memory bank of anyone who has ever taken a Psychology course. But Experimenter, much like academia, is concerned mostly with Milgram’s famed early 1960s obedience experiments, which yielded disturbing results about easily conditioned human beings that society at large was not quite ready to accept, leading to Milgram being treated as something of a pariah within his own academic community. Filmed with a desaturated palette and utilizing props and set backdrops to inflect rather than convey period, Almereyda’s created a cold, clinical portrait of a man whose own familial background informed his timely social experiment, one that’s been referenced and recreated as a tenet of understanding unnerving truths as concerns human behavior.
At Yale University in 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) conducted his radical behavioral experiments concerning human willingness to obey authority. Born out of his wish to understand how Hitler’s Nazi Party was able to exact such terrible depravity upon the Jewish populous during the Holocaust, Milgram’s results are rather disturbing. Participants were asked to pose as a ‘teacher,’ charged to read groups of words to a ‘learner,’ who sat on the other side of a two-way mirror. The teacher was charged with administering an electric shock each time the learner answered a question incorrectly. With the help of his staff (including Anthony Edwards and Jim Gaffigan), their results were unprecedented, with 65% of the teachers administering the full shock treatment as directed, though many would engage in weak resistance, each time remitting to the excuse that they were following instructions. But the world at large was not quite ready for Milgram’s findings, which shocked and disturbed his colleagues.
“Life can only be understood backwards, but can only be lived forward,” was Milgram’s oft used philosophy, repeated generously here both by Sarsgaard as Milgram as well as an adoring fan. As the controversial psychologist, Sarsgaard is convincing as an overly composed man secretly irritated by the nearsighted colleagues and culture that reigned in the greatness he could have received during his lifetime.
After the findings from his obedience study were published, this resulted in a backlash that found him being denied tenure at Yale, even though the ramifications of his findings related directly to what was being said during the Eichmann trial flooding the media, which led to another controversial hypothesis of the period from political theorist Hannah Arendt (subject of Margarethe Von Trotta’s 2012 film starring Barbara Sukowa), who ruminated on the ‘banality of evil.’ She comes up more than once in discussion here and Milgram’s absent commentary on her theory speaks volumes about, perhaps, his secret, bitter thoughts about despicable humans that allow atrocities to transpire in the name of following orders. If anything, Almereyda’s film is delightfully sly, at times, expertly utilizing Sarsgaard’s perfection of barely contained judgment during the experiments. Yet, in a continual break of the fourth wall as Milgram constantly addresses the audience and narrates his own life story, Almereyda transplants an elephant in the background of the clinical milieu—Milgram was not without his own secret agenda or motivation.
Despite the playful flourish of the film’s set design, using black and white backdrops for mentor Solomon Asch’s (Ned Eisenberg, with 80s star Lori Singer as the missus) home, or highly artificial driving sequences that recall a period of film techniques rather than the actual period, Experimenter isn’t as visually experimental as these moments would otherwise suggest (though what’s going on between the lines as concerns how ‘Milgram’ means ‘pomegranate’ lends the material a mythological texture, as if, like Persephone, his enlightenment traps him between two existences).
We get small hints at the holes in Milgram’s professional persona (“Odd to see one’s name in the paper, though I could get used to it”), sometimes via his female students that make proclamations about his personality that he could never admit to himself (or, as we’re led to believe, his ever supportive wife played with period panache by Winona Ryder). And then there are possible environmental factors during the experiment which his perspective caused him to ignore. While black participants were used in the obedience experiments, and their responses yielded similar results, Almereyda treats us to an interesting tangent which saw Milgram sell the rights of the book outlining his study (well, he got paid as a ‘consultant’) to screenwriter George Bellak, which turned into a 1976 television film The Tenth Level starring William Shatner and Ossie Davis (here portrayed by Kellan Lutz and Dennis Haysbert, which feels like inspired casting on both fronts). Mr. Davis relates a story of his youth that hints at a kind of terror induced conditioning not quite addressed in Milgram’s studies.
Intelligently written and well performed, Milgram’s results are chilling to comprehend, and Almereyda’s closing statements are wisely observed concerning the puppets that human beings tend to be, with awareness of our flawed natures the only available solace we can conceive.
Reviewed on January 26 at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres Programme. 98 Min.