Coming out of a psychology background I was familiar with Stanley Milgram’s famous social experiment back in high school during Intro to Psych. Even back then it was a striking conclusion on conformity and just how far people will go. It was also ruthlessly contrived and even more methodically executed. Inspiration came from Milgram’s own background working with psychologist Solomon Asch, as well as his own Jewish ancestry, nights watching Candid Camera, and a fascination in the Adolf Eichmann trial.
The results of his controversial deception are staggering. If people are told to administer an electric shock, even against their own will, knowing that the other person might full well be hurt, they will comply with benevolent authority. When you think about its moral implications, you wonder why no one had yet to make a film about it, but then again, now someone has.
Michael Almereyda appears to be the heart and soul of this film, and he brings together a mixed bag of talent, headed by Alexander Skarsgard and Winona Ryder, with various supporting spots filled by the likes of Jim Gaffigan, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, Dennis Haysbert, and Anthony Edwards.
This is a stripped down film of simple design, but it rocks us with potency because its basic premise is so intriguing. It’s difficult not to be fascinated by the findings of Milgram since they feel as startling now as they were back in 1962. The scary part is that humanity has not changed all that much, not really when we get down to the base levels of human nature.
It puts the systematic genocide of the Nazis into perspective, but it has even more frightening implications for all of humanity. It leads to soul-searching, personal reconciliation, and of course, backlash, against Milgram himself. As the moral issues are twofold. The participants subjected to such an illusion, with confederates playing along, are forced to figure out their own conscience — what this all means about them. Meanwhile, the man behind this deception is understandably under fire. The public cannot fully condone what they did, nor do they want to believe his results.
Milgrim would lose his tenure, but as the years rolled ever onward, he carved at a decent life for himself with his wife, kids, and a nice work circuit, giving lectures and continuing his social experiments on conformity.
These are the fascinating aspects of the film. It’s when it gets a tad pretentious, breaking the fourth wall and using obviously phony back projection to tell the story of Milgram the man, that it ceases being as interesting. Because we are intrigued far more by his work than him as a person. He’s hardly an anomaly and more the norm, so we begin to remember why a film was never made about him before. The narrative strands start becoming fairly thin.
But in some ways, Experimenter feels like an apt companion piece to the film Hannah Arendt, because they both examine two people fascinated with human kind’s capacity to commit evil by examining not simply Adolf Eichmann but a great many other everyday individuals. That alone makes it worthwhile viewing — especially those fascinated by psychology. Like the former film, it’s hardly perfect or even cutting edge when it comes to biopics, but it certainly gives the viewer something to grapple with.