Thursday, November 19, 2015
Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story
EXPERIMENTER: THE STANLEY MILGRAM STORY (Michael Almereyda, 2015)
In EXPERIMENTER: THE STANLEY MILGRAM STORY social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) studies obedience at Yale beginning in 1961. Volunteers in the experiment are given the role of teacher to a man they’ve met but who is not visible in the adjoining room during the test. This person is referred to as the learner, and he is asked to remember word pairings. If the learner supplies an incorrect answer, the teacher is instructed to give an electric shock of 45 volts. The voltage increases with wrong replies up to 450 volts. The learner is not actually being shocked but makes exclamations of pain and requests to stop, which can be heard through the wall. Although an observer in the room with the teacher will tell the participant to continue with the experiment, the teacher could quit. Milgram found that most do not. The experiment makes him famous but draws criticism that follows him through life.
EXPERIMENTER is staged as if it takes place within an artificial environment. Obvious chromakey backgrounds are used for period settings. The confines of the research space, the classroom, and other private spaces suggest the feeling that every action and utterance is presented for observation behind a one-way mirror. The muted visual strategy points to the clinical nature of this biographical portrait, although it’s not an outsider looking into who the experimental psychologist is. Sarsgaard as Milgram frequently addresses the camera directly, as if the film is the experimenter’s investigation into himself.
With this unconventional approach writer-director Michael Almereyda avoids the trappings of biopic cliches. While EXPERIMENTER touches upon Milgram’s most famous work, it isn’t a checklist of big life moments but a psychological probing of how his background and obsessions informed him to study the banality of evil. Sarsgaard conveys the seriousness of Milgram’s pursuit but retains awareness of the humor and absurdity that can emerge in such labor.