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How Experimenter and The Stanford Prison Experiment explore the psychology of control

Two fact-based dramas revisit controversial research projects of the 1960s and '70s.



You may have seen the black-and-white footage, shot on the Yale University campus in May 1962. A middle-aged man sits at an electrical console, posing memory-recall questions to someone strapped into a chair in the next room and administering electric shocks for each wrong answer. As the shocks get worse and worse—150 volts, 165 volts, 180 volts—the victim complains, shouting that he has a heart condition and demanding to be let out. The man at the console protests to the researcher offscreen, but the researcher offers to take responsibility and orders him to continue. Again and again the man reluctantly raises the voltage—420 volts, 435 volts, 450 volts—even after his victim has fallen ominously silent. Subjects in the experiment, conducted over several months by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, were told it was a study of how punishment affects learning, but the whole electroshock drama was a hoax, the victim an actor. What Milgram really wanted to learn was how people can be conditioned to commit barbarous acts.

Published the following year, Milgram's findings—that two-thirds of all subjects would complete the exercise, administering what they thought were severe shocks—ignited a firestorm of controversy that smolders to this day. Writer-director Michael Almereyda (best known for his 2000 adaption of Hamlet with Ethan Hawke) has made a quirky biopic of Milgram, Experimenter, that dramatizes the "electroshock" experiments in detail and shows how they overshadowed the rest of his career. It comes on the heels of The Stanford Prison Experiment, Kyle Patrick Alvarez's gripping dramatization of the notorious 1971 study, inspired by Milgram's work, in which Stanford University students were cast in the roles of prisoners and guards and immediately went overboard.

Peter Sarsgaard has just the right air of elegant sangfroid to play an ambitious academic, and he carries Experimenter with an ongoing monologue, delivered to the camera, in which Milgram touches dutifully on his key theories. Despite all this talk, though, Milgram proves to be an elusive character, one that Almereyda can only approach whimsically. The director who once staged Hamlet's "To be, or not to be . . ." soliloquy inside a video store includes scenes of Milgram walking down the halls of Yale (which denied him tenure) and later City University of New York with an elephant following close behind, a metaphor for the electroshock experiments. In the wackiest sequence, Milgram serves as consultant for The Tenth Level, a fictionalized TV movie about himself that starred William Shatner and Ossie Davis, and listens to the feverish Shatner (Kellan Lutz) boast about his taboo-busting interracial kiss with Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek.

No wonder, then, that the real emotional power of Experimenter rests with Milgram's subjects. Almereyda has rounded up a fine cast of players for these roles—Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, Taryn Manning, Danny A. Abeckaser, Donnie Keshawarz, Tom Farrell—and their short vignettes of doubt, anxiety, rebellion, and resignation are the most vivid scenes in the movie. When the subjects are debriefed by Milgram and learn that they were the real objects of study, some are relieved, some are angry, and some are ashamed. All of them know more about themselves than when they began, and in most cases they're troubled by this "inflicted insight," as one psychologist later termed it. Leguizamo's character, asked by Milgram why he kept administering the shocks, replies, "I thought the experiment depended on me." When Milgram asks him who bore the responsibility for the victim's treatment, he admits, "I don't know."

The Stanford Prison Experiment
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment is more of an ensemble piece than Experimenter, which makes it a more piercing lesson in social psychology. Billy Crudup contributes a mesmerizing performance as professor Philip Zimbardo, who recruited 24 male students to spend two weeks role-playing as prisoners and guards in a basement wing of the psychology building at Stanford. But the action shifts from Zimbardo and his staff to the guards to the prisoners, the college kids played by an able cast that includes Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, and Tye Sheridan. Angarano is particularly good as Christopher Archer, who adopts the southern drawl of Strother Martin (the boss man in Cool Hand Luke) to play the captain of the guards. Nicknamed John Wayne by the prisoners, he fosters an atmosphere of casual intimidation and playful torture, putting the prisoners through an endless regimen of tests, calisthenics, and other punishments. The guards are prohibited from assaulting the prisoners, but after only a day that line has been crossed. "Let's see where it goes," says Zimbardo as the experiment begins its gradual decline into chaos.

Milgram and Zimbardo knew each other personally—they were in the same graduating class at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, and Zimbardo actually visited Milgram on the Yale campus during the electroshock project. As Zimbardo later wrote, Milgram's numerous variations on the experiment—giving the subject a partner, or moving the victim to a more remote location—revealed "the extreme pliability of human nature. . . . It was possible to elicit low, medum, or high levels of compliant obedience with the flick of a situational switch." From this understanding, and from his own questionable behavior as conductor of the prison experiment, Zimbardo posited that personal power can be overwhelmed by the power of one's situation, but that both of these are nothing compared to the systemic power whose ideology governs the situation.

Both men also wrestled with charges that they, and not their subjects, were the ones who had lost their moral compass. "If you think of it really, you were delivering shocks," a female student points out to Milgram in Experimenter. He rejects this idea in the movie and defended the experiments in real life, but he waited a decade to publish a book about the project. In The Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo's fiancee (Olivia Thirlby), a fellow psychologist, comes to the experiment in progress, gets a look at the guards leading prisoners around with bags over their heads, and gives Zimbardo the wake-up call he's needed all along. "Those are not prisoners," she exclaims. "Those are not subjects, they're not students. Those are boys, Phil. Those are boys, and you are harming them!" The prison, she points out, is governed by the students' fear of him; he's participating in the experiment, not observing it.

The Stanford Prison Experiment gained new currency when the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke in 2003; in fact Zimbardo served as an expert witness for one of the U.S. soldiers, arguing without success that the real culprit was a corrupt system. But in fact both experiments have remained relevant over the years, informing our sense of how easily any person can be manipulated. Compliance, one of the best indie dramas of 2012, dramatized the rash of "strip-search scams" perpetrated upon fast-food restaurants across the U.S., in which a prank caller posing as a police officer persuaded managers to strip-search employees suspected of stealing. The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), two harrowing documentaries by Josh Oppenheimer, focus on the men who carried out the slaughter of accused communists in Indonesia from 1965 to '66, and find them unrepentant and unperturbed by the atrocities they committed on behalf of the state. As Milgram points out in Experimenter, we are "puppets with awareness" who can see our own strings. Seeing them, both men would argue, is the first step to severing them.  v

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Director: Kyle Alvarez

Producer: Brent Emery, Lizzie Friedman, Karen Lauder, Greg Little, Lauren Bratman, Katie Leary, Bob Leary and Brian Geraghty

Cast: Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Nicholas Braun, Gaius Charles, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann, Ezra Miller, Logan Miller, Tye Sheridan, Nelsan Ellis and Olivia Thirlby

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