Review: Experimenter (2015)

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgrim Story isn’t a typical biopic. Rather than present an inspiring true story, it uses the story of experimental psychologist, Stanley Milgrim (Peter Sarsgaard), and his controversial obedience tests from the 1960s to explore the way that illusion and deception can reveal truths about human nature. What director Michael Almereyda manages is something remarkably counter to the norm of so many biopics of “great men” in Hollywood films, which try to overwhelm the viewer with emotional climaxes and tend to conform the person’s life to the conventions of Hollywood narrative. This makes Experimenter a special film that stands out in the midst of award-season Oscar-bait.

Unlike films such as A Beautiful Mind or Ray, Experimenter never subordinates the fascinating facts of the story to emotional and narrative conventions. Rather than using emotion to draw the viewer into its story, the film utilizes effects which could in other circumstances come across as clinical, alienating, almost Brechtian, in the stance with which they address the viewer, with the film’s obviously false costumes, rear-projection effects, and breaking of the fourth wall. But this stance, rather than alienating, puts the viewer in the position of a neutral observer, similar to the one that Milgrim adopts in his experiments; rather than leaving the viewer cold, it actually offers the viewer a strong sense of who Milgrim was and what made him tick. It is surprising effective, insightful and even entertaining, provided one’s sense of entertainment doesn’t exclude the playful or experimental. In looking at Milgrim’s life and research through an experimental lense, Experimenter challenges the viewer to face the difficult questions regarding truth and deception at the heart of his famous experiment.

The film introduces us to Stanley Milgrim in the middle of one of his famous experiments. Milgrim was an American experimental psychologist who is best known for the series of obedience tests he administered to test subjects at Yale and Harvard in the 1960s. The tests were set up in order to find out how people would react to authority figures and orders that went against their morals or ethical beliefs. The experiment involved seeing how people reacted when they were led to believe that they were administering a series of increasingly painful shocks to a stranger (who was actually an actor in the employ of Milgrim’s laboratory), even to supposedly lethal levels. What Milgrim’s tests suggested was that, contrary to the psychological wisdom of the time, two-thirds of participants proceeded to administer the full round of shocks against the protestations of the stranger in the other room when contented by the lab superintendent that all responsibility for what happened would be assumed by the experiment’s overseers.

Received in the context of post-WWII America and around the same time as the famous trial of Nazi bureaucrat, Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem, Milgrim’s experiment suggested uncomfortable truths about what individuals are capable of when they submit to authority and the “banality of evil.” The conclusion that Milgrim argued was that the atrocities of Nazi Germany were not a particular failing of the German people, and that they could indeed happen in America if the conditions were right.

However, in the face of such uncomfortable truths, Milgrim’s methods came under attack as being unethical and contrived. In the film, when Milgrim moves from Yale to Harvard to CUNY, he struggles to get tenure even as his book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, is well-received. His critics accuse him of having traumatized his victims through the deception of the experiment (i.e. misleading the subject in regards to both the purpose and danger of the experiment) and he is accused of manipulating his results.

As noted above, Experimenter begins in the middle of one of Milgrim’s tests, as he walks us through the process of the experiment. The film is framed by the tests, and as narrated by Sarsgaard’s Milgrim, the tests become the central mode through which the viewer approaches Milgrim’s life. Despite the film’s experimental form, allowing Milgrim to narrate his own life makes the film quite intimate in how we can get into his head. What we learn of Milgrim’s childhood is given to us in narration, not shown, even though Milgrim’s Jewish background as the son of European emigres is highly relevant to the context in which his experiments were conducted. His relationship to his wife, played by Winona Ryder, is also framed against the experiments; Alexandra is portrayed as someone who supports him through the challenges against the psychological establishment and even suggests that he try the experiment with women. It reveals her as more than merely a love interest, but rather a partner who improved his experiments. It’s one of Ryder’s most substantial and interesting roles in a long time, and she is a welcome presence in the film.

What to make, though, of Experimenter’s play with surrealism, anti-realism, and obvious artifice? In one sequence, as Milgrim walks down a hallway, an elephant walks behind him. In another sequence, Stanley and Alexandra’s drive to his old supervisor’s home utilizes obvious rear-projection. The last parts of the film have Sarsgaard wearing an obviously fake chinstrap beard. Sometimes such gambits on the part of a filmmaker can be seen as a last ditch effort to make something interesting or inject an artsy veneer. But the material here, both the fascinating details of Milgrim’s experiments and career and it’s unique presentation, is wildly compelling. I could imagine a more conventional version of this film that adhered to the Hollywood conventions I noted above, portraying Milgrim as a heroic figure battling the establishment to tell the truth about human nature.

However, I think the film’s use of artifice highlights an important question which is leveled as a challenge to Milgrim’s experiments: that is that the experiments were a deception. Firstly, the film, through its form, poses the question of whether artifice can ever reveal truth. But it also points to the artifice of all such filmic conventions. No film can capture the full truth of a person’s life, and directors and screenwriters always pick and choose how and what events will make up the film.

In one key scene, Milgrim is viewing the shooting of a TV movie that was made about his work, a CBS TV movie called The Tenth Level, starring William Shatner as Milgrim: Shatner is played in the film by Kellan Lutz, seemingly channeling Chris Pine’s Kirk as much as Shatner. Milgrim’s Sarsgaard complains that a “goy” is playing him in the film—the irony that Sarsgaard himself isn’t Jewish and that William Shatner was, himself, actually of Jewish background in reality is let to stand. Film always manipulates reality, and so do experiments. They allow the experimenters or film creators to narrow the focus on one particular isolated person, event, or action, and hopefully reveal something more about them.

Experimenter ends up being a far more engaging and moving film that one would expect from my initial description, given that many of the techniques utilized could be distancing of the viewer rather than drawing him or her in. Part of this is the excellent performance of Peter Sarsgaard which anchors the film. What much of the artifice of the film does is draw the viewer into the perspective of Stanley Milgrim, even as the film’s narration and clinical subject matter portray an objective view. Experimenter ends up offering an insightful look into the work of a significant researcher, and it uses the unique abilities of cinema to explore that work and the person who conceived of it.

8 out of 10

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgrim Story (2015, USA)

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda; starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Anton Yelchin, Kellen Lutz, Dennis Haysbert, John Leguizamo, Jim Gaffigan.