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Review: Experimenter (2015)

Experimenter (2015)

Directed by: Michael Almereyda

Premise: A biographical picture about social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard). The film primarily dramatizes his 1961 obedience experiment and the reception and criticism of his work.

What Works: In the postwar years social scientists were grappling with the aftermath of the Holocaust and trying to understand how it was that so many people could be mobilized to carry out such an awful atrocity. Dr. Stanley Milgram and his research associates devised an obedience experiment in which subjects would give a memory test to another participant. For each wrong answer the subject would administer electric shocks, with each shock progressively stronger. The test taker, who was in on the setup, would cry out in pain and protest, asking to be let out of the experiment. In nearly every case the subject ignored the pleas for mercy and continued to shock the test taker all the way to the maximum voltage. It was concluded that the subjects, which included both men and women from a variety of ethnic and social backgrounds, shifted the responsibility onto the scientist observing the test and prompting them to continue. When the results of the study were published they were quite controversial as they suggested that most of us were capable of participating in atrocities and some other social scientists attacked Milgram’s methods and claimed the treatment of the subjects was unethical. The dramatic film Experimenter focuses on Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment and its aftermath but it also addresses Milgram’s subsequent work and the relationship between his experiments and his personal life. The movie is in part a defense of Milgram. As it’s portrayed in Experimenter, the obedience experiment was so heavily criticized because the truths it revealed were too terrible for many people to reconcile and the blowback ultimately cost the doctor his job at Harvard. Stanley Milgram is played by Peter Sarsgaard who is quite good in the role. He does not play Milgram as a mad scientist or a stuffy professorial cliché but as a man driven by curiosity and who possessed his own eccentricities and a flat sense of humor. Sarsgaard also captures an irony about Milgram; as he’s portrayed in the film, Milgram spent his life studying social interactions and yet he was socially awkward. That humanizes him as does the relationship between Stanley Milgram and his wife Sasha played by Winona Ryder. The couple has an effective and natural rapport as they deal with the ups and downs of Milgram’s career.

What Doesn’t: Experimenter is nowhere near as bold or as dramatically involving as 2015’s The Stanford Prison Experiment which dramatized Philip Zimbardo’s controversial 1971 study of the effect of prison life on guards and inmates. The facts in the case of Milgram’s obedience experiment just aren’t dramatically compelling in the same way. However, there are some other storytelling problems with this movie. Like a lot of biopics, the plot of Experimenter moves from one life event to another but lacks an overarching dramatic shape. The stylistic choices of the movie tend to take the viewer out of the moment. Milgram, played by Peter Sarsgaard, frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, narrating what is going on or expounding upon the implications of his work. This adds an unusual quality to the picture but it also interrupts the dramatic momentum of the story. The narration also results in Experimenter playing like a well-produced educational film, the kind of thing that would be shown in high school social studies classes. That impression is enhanced by the uneven production values. At times the modest budget of the film shows through in the costuming and set design.

DVD extras: Featurettes, interviews, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Anyone with an interest in psychology or sociology will find Experimenter to be an engaging piece of film. It’s a flawed drama but the movie has a unique style that makes it unlike the average biographical picture.

Episode: #583 (February 21, 2016)