Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Premise: Based on a true story. Professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) creates a mock prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. What begins as an innocuous social experiment quickly becomes a dangerous situation.
What Works: There are a handful of psychological and sociological experiments that have become part of the lexicon of everyday people and even those who have no interest in the social sciences have probably heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Conducted in the summer of 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his team of researchers recruited twenty-four male college students, randomly assigned them roles of guards or prisoners, and then placed the subjects in a makeshift prison that had been created in the basement of an academic building at Stanford University. These young men quickly internalized their roles, not thinking of themselves as participants in a mock up but as actual guards and inmates in an actual prison. This mentality even afflicted Zimbardo and his fellow researchers and the conditions in the prison became increasingly abusive. The events of the Stanford Prison Experiment have been dramatized in the film of the same name. What separates a dramatization from a documentary is that a drama must account for the human element; it has to present the events in a way that makes the experience of the characters accessible to the viewer and explore the emotional and human stakes of the story. This picture does an excellent job of placing the viewer in the moment and recreating the headspace of the participants. In many respects The Stanford Prison Experiment is similar to the first half of Full Metal Jacket in that it is about a process of institutional dehumanization and the transformation of individuals from their own identity and into the roles they’ve been assigned. The film’s style captures the oppression. Once the experiment begins, the action of the movie is almost exclusively limited to the basement, confining the characters in claustrophobic spaces illuminated with ugly florescent institutional lighting. The performances by the actors are entirely convincing; Michael Angarano plays a lead guard who embodies the evil of power unshackled from responsibility and Johnny Simmons and Tye Sheridan convey the trauma of the prison experience. Also notable is Billy Crudup as Dr. Zimbardo; the doctor zigzags between an objective scientist and a participant in the experiment and Crudup plays that corruption very effectively.
What Doesn’t: The scope and style of The Stanford Prison Experiment puts certain opportunities outside the purview of the film. Aside from a brief interview montage in the opening, The Stanford Prison Experiment does not tell us much about who these men were before the study. Their anonymity serves the purpose of the movie but the filmmakers miss an opportunity to create a more meaningful contrast between who these men were in daily life and who they became during the experiment. As in a real prison, the guards were able to leave the premises when their shift was over and seeing as how they became different people while on the job it would be interesting to know if the guards took those new identities with them when they left the prison. The ending of The Stanford Prison Experiment is abrupt and the film leaves some key issues unexplored. Given how traumatic the experience was for some of the prisoners, it would be interesting to know their immediate post-experiment feelings. The montage of exit interviews that concludes the movie raises an especially important issue. The lead guard played by Michael Angarano says he was deliberately testing everyone to see how far as he could go. That has implications for the validity of the study that aren’t explored.
DVD extras: Featurettes and trailers.
Bottom Line: The Stanford Prison Experiment exists to dramatize the events of the classic study and put the audience in touch with the experience of these scientists and their subjects. The movie accomplishes that brilliantly and it is an enlightening and disturbing portrayal of institutional violence.
Episode: #577 (January 10, 2016)