There have been two films at Sundance this year focusing on influential studies in social behavioral science and the resulting repercussions. Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “Stanford Prison Experiment” (review here) looked at the studies of Dr. Philip Zimbardo, while “Experimenter” from director Michael Almereyda examines Dr. Stanley Milgram‘s Obedience to Authority experiment. While the experiment itself is fascinating, the approach taken by Almereyda in using distractingly peculiar storytelling techniques only succeeds in distancing the audience from the film’s inspiration.
The beginning of the film is fantastic, focusing on the process of the experiment itself in painstaking detail. Participants are led into a room and selected as teacher or student: the teacher is then told to administer electric shocks to the student (in another room) if the latter fails to answer questions right. A supervising scientist encourages the teachers to keep going, even when screams and begging are audible from the other room. Of course, there are no electric shocks administered, but the study finds that overwhelmingly subjects followed orders no matter the outcome. Milgram, a Jew whose parents fled Europe, found inspiration in the ghastly events of the Holocaust to explore human behavior in such extremes.
A legion of great actors portray participants: Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin. Jim Gaffigan plays the “student” ostensibly getting shocked, and his recorded screams and cries of “ow stop!” are wonderfully Gaffigan-y. Peter Sarsgaard plays Dr. Milgram, and he is cool and reserved. Winona Ryder portrays his wife Sasha.
Early on, the Milgram character addresses the audience, breaking the fourth wall. It’s a bit interesting at first, but quickly becomes tedious, as the narrative moves on from the experiment to other parts of Milgram’s life. Milgram essentially details his life story alongside his motivations for his work, which takes all the fun out of figuring it out. He tells us right away that the events in Europe were an inspiration for his experiment (aided by documentary footage of Adolf Eichmann), but it seems like it would have been much better executed as a slow realization for the viewer. We have no questions about Milgram as a person or professional since he tells us everything we need to know.
Additionally, in scenes of Milgram’s early married life, a rear-projection-esque (the image is obviously green screen and not rear-projection) technique is used when the young couple goes to his mentor’s house for a visit, continuing from the car to the interior of the home, creating a totally artificial and completely distracting landscape that seems to have no point whatsoever.
The plot proceeds through the rest of Dr. Milgram’s life, with Sarsgaard remaining stilted and awkward. There’s nothing obviously deficient with Sarsgaard’s performance, but it’s not the most emotionally accessible character to latch onto. It is a straightforward biopic, notwithstanding the stylistic quirks. Depictions of the experiment itself are well-done, and probably should have comprised the entire movie. Watching the participants struggle to finish their directives and then attempt to rationalize their actions is the interesting part of Milgram’s experiment, certainly more than the straightforward telling of the rest of his life through academia and as a public intellectual.
Milgram’s study was a landmark in the field of social psychology, and the themes have lots of potential for exploration on film (Craig Zobel’s “Compliance,” for example). But the biopic format and storytelling choices cause “Experimenter” to fall completely flat. It’s a missed opportunity. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.