Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story

Question: Can a film delve into the topical yet timeless issues of free-will, social conformity, and malevolent authority, and still remain a fun, genuine entertainment? I answer in the affirmative and as Exhibit A give you Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter (2015).

Experimenter tells the story of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, author of a study now known as the “Obedience Experiments.” It begins at Yale University in 1961 when Milgram (confident, yet affable and self-deprecating Peter Sarsgaard) is deep into his series of tests that will soon become controversial blockbusters of social research. We watch a volunteer deliver a series of increasingly painful electric shocks to a second person as a consequence for wrong answers on a multiple-choice test. The purported aim is to discover whether negative feedback, aka punishment, improves an learning and recall.

In reality, the test is a sham. The man receiving the jolts is an actor. There are no shocks, and his screams of pain, his howls of protest, are meant to assess the individual administering the “punishment.” Milgram wanted to know: Would participants continue even if what they were doing seemed to harm another person? What we soon learn, is that, yes, over sixty percent of volunteers, when directed by the test’s academic overseer, went on with the shocks until the test concluded.

The rest of Experimenter concerns Milgram’s life post-obedience experiments. His career progresses from Yale, to Harvard, to head of social psychology at CUNY. He conducts other studies of human interaction and relationships; one even discovers the six degrees of separation. The New York Times writes a scathing article about the obedience study, and Milgram becomes a mildly controversial public figure. Many people consider the tests a laboratory con rather than genuine academic research, and the negative reaction thwarts his tenure at Harvard. But he also publishes a book about the experiments, Obedience to Authority, and appears on TV talk-shows. Almereyda intersperses these moments with scenes of Milgram meeting his wife Sasha (Wynona Rider; a full, independent character despite the supporting role), of their children, their home life.

But don’t be misled. Experimenter is one of the most engaging films about a “big subject” to come along in some time. It far exceeds a mere biopic. While interesting enough – puzzling out the man who subjected people to what detractors termed “Candid Camera”-type scenarios – director Almereyda (The Eternal, Cymbeline) has vaster ambitions. That’s demonstrated in the first few minutes when Milgram, observing an obedience experiment session through one-way glass (a purposeful parallel to our experience of watching the movie), turns and speaks to the viewer: “This part. This part is where the experiment really begins.”

Throughout the film Milgram pauses to address the audience. Experimenter is all the better for it. We become his confidants, and can’t help but be drawn into his interests and concerns. But breaking the fourth wall is only the simplest of Almereyda’s tools. For while Experimenter is subtitled The Stanley Milgram Story, the film’s larger point is an examination of group pressure, conformity, and free will.

“How do civilized human beings participate in destructive, inhumane acts?” Milgram rhetorically asks in one of his asides. “And how do the perpetrators live with themselves?”

So instead of verisimilitude, Almereyda goes for self-awareness. He constantly draws our attention to the fact that we watch a movie. Ingenious set pieces pile up the layers of self-reference. Milgram watches CBS film a TV movie about the Yale obedience trials. It stars William Shatner as Milgram — though the character was renamed Steven Turner, Milgram’s Jewishness apparently too much for the time — and Ossie Davis as his department head. “Your father’s becoming a fictional character,” Sasha announces to their children. (You can sample this egregious product, “The Tenth Level,” on YouTube.)

Archival footage of other experiments are admitted to be recreations. Many scenes in Experimenter are set before obvious rear-screen projection, some of them so off-angle, the actors appear to be walking on the walls. Then there’s the elephant. It paces behind Milgram during his asides, its head nodding up and down as he talks.

For as Milgram comments, not only does the behavior of an individual often depend on the circumstances they find themselves in, his obedience experiments demonstrated that few possess the inner resources to resist malevolent authority.

An uncomfortable idea people don’t like to discuss the film makes clear, the proverbial elephant in the room. Yet, Experimenter asserts that such instances fill history. The Holocaust is the obvious example. (Milgram is the child of Jewish parents who fled Europe just ahead of the Nazi terror, and he notes that Adolf Eichmann’s trial, coincidentally, was televised worldwide during the time of the obedience study.) Almereyda also references slavery, Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, France’s war in Algeria. By extension, I think he means us to consider the McCarthy hearings, Rwanda, and the ramifications of the Global War on Terror. And though Experimenter was made before the most recent political brouhaha, it forces an assessment of the sudden rise (reemergence?) of racial and religious intolerance in this country.

A dour perspective on human nature. But as Milgram narrates near the film’s end, literally post-mortem: “You could argue we are puppets, but I believe we are puppets with awareness, with perception. Sometimes we can see the strings. And perhaps our awareness is the first step in our liberation.”

Stefen Styrsky has appeared in “The Offing,” “Inch” and “The Tahoma Literary Review.” His website is www.stefenstyrsky.com.