In 1961, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of social experiments that measured the willingness of the participants to obey an authority figure. In the experiment, there were three distinct roles: The Experimenter (the person running the experiment), the Teacher (the participant), and the Student (the actor hired to be at the whim of the Teacher.) The Teacher and the Student were placed in different rooms so they could communicate with one another but not see each other. The Teacher was asked to teach the Student a series of word pairs. First, the Teacher would read these word pairs to the Student, and then afterwards would read the first word of a word pair and give four possible answers for the second word. If the Student got it wrong, he would be given an electroshock with the voltage increasing for each successive wrong answer (the Teacher was given a sample electroshock before the experiment began to experience it firsthand). Little did the Teacher know that the Student wasn’t receiving any electroshocks, but in fact there was a tape playing pre-recorded sounds for every shock level.
Though there’s much more to the experiment, Milgram was trying to demonstrate how easily our own conscience can be warped by an authority figure. The experiments began only three months after the start of Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial, and Milgram devised the experiment in part to determine if Nazis like Eichmann were just following orders or if they were actual accomplices. This is the basis for Michael Almereyda’s new film “Experimenter,” starring Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram, and focuses not only on the controversial experiments but their effects on his relationship with his wife, played by Winona Ryder. Critics have praised the film, especially the first half which dramatizes the disturbing experiments, as well as Sarsgaard’s performance, but some found fault with the film’s turn to conventional biopic territory in its second half. Regardless, “Experimenter” tackles some of the most haunting questions about average citizens’ inability to stand up to authority and become bystanders to horrific crimes.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
In “Experimenter,” an aesthetically and intellectually playful portrait of the social psychologist Stanley Milgram, the director, Michael Almereyda, turns a biopic into a mind game. It’s an appropriate take on a figure who’s best remembered for his experiments in which subjects delivered punishing electric shocks on command. Working in the shadow of the Holocaust, and shortly after the capture of the SS official Adolf Eichmann, Milgram (1933-1984) was interested in questions of authority, conformity and conscience. “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders,” Milgram asked. “Could we call them all accomplices?” The restlessly original Mr. Almereyda comes at this question inventively, sometimes with Milgram — a delicate, sensitive Peter Sarsgaard — talking right into the camera. Mr. Almereyda has a boundless gift for finding new ways to tell old stories, and “Experimenter,” as befits its title, is less a straight biography than a diverting gloss on human behavior, historical memory and cinema itself. It’s a story about a man whose work was haunted by the death camps, was conducted as the United States escalated its presence in Vietnam and was destined to speak to the ages (to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and beyond) because his subject — the all too human being — is reliably barbaric. Read more.
Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice
Completing a trifecta of recent cinema (after “Masters of Sex” and “The Stanford Prison Experiment”) suddenly fascinated with the social-science lab experiments of the Eisenhower-Nixon era, “Experimenter” is as cool as a grad student clamping electrodes onto a test monkey. One of our lowest-profile indie-film treasures, director Michael Almereyda never makes the same movie twice, toggling from Pixelvision experiment (1992’s “Another Girl, Another Planet”) to downtown-hipster-horror (1994’s “Nadja”) to modern-day Shakespeare, art documentaries, post-mod shorts, home-movie avant-garde, and weirdly meditative dramas with no definition. “Experimenter” may be his “Zelig” or “American Hustle,” the ironic, icy, self-conscious riff on history that lands him at the front of the cultural brainpan. Read more.
Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com
The thread that unifies all this, one might venture, has to do with the issue of free will. The upside of Milgram’s experiments (as one of his mentors attempts to point out) was to show that at least a significant minority of people can resist unwarranted social controls. What about trying to construct an educational system and a society that grow that number? Likewise, though many people love to be manipulated by movies, how about asserting the value of works like “Experimenter,” which, in keeping the emotional temperature low and presenting us with a collage of evidence on related subjects, allows us the interpretive freedom to construct its meanings for ourselves? No doubt, that kind of freedom is only offered us by a certain type of artist, of which Almeredya is a prime and invaluable example. From early in his career, it was clearly that he was an unusually gifted director, yet rather than allowing himself to be sucked into the mainstream moviemaking system, he has deliberately stayed on the intelligent margins, making a range of films from docs to shorts to modern Shakespeare adaptations to works that deserve the designation experimental. In so doing, he has allowed himself a creative freedom that suffuses his latest like a constant stream of mountain air. “Experimenter,” he might say, “c’est moi.” Read more.
Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
Milgram’s other work (like proving the “six degrees of separation” rule through a complex experiment involving the mail) represents some of the more inspirational aspects of social psychology, yet he remains obsessed over the central conundrum of our time. What can stop blind compliance of tortuous acts, especially when the perpetrators know they are wrong? People come to Milgram to say, “I would never switch those shock dials,” and a small percentage of them are right. What Milgram knows – and has the science to back it up – is that most of them are wrong. The numbers don’t lie. Ultimately, “Experimenter” finds a glimmer of hope by simply revealing itself. Maybe if more people are educated about the dangers of obedience, they’ll put up more resistance. It can’t hurt to hope. Read more.
Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club
It’s all handled so deftly, and raises so many probing questions, that the film’s shift into more standard biopic territory in its second half can’t help but be a letdown. Early on, even briefly glimpsed aspects of Milgram’s personal life, like his relationship with wife Sasha (Winona Ryder), feel like extensions of his scientific method. And Almereyda — a hardcore formalist who once shot an entire feature on a PixelVision camera — reinforces that sense of artificiality throughout, having Milgram directly address the camera and staging several scenes in front of blatantly projected backdrops. But this surfeit of style, while invigorating, can’t disguise the fundamentally expository nature of the home-stretch material, which addresses various unrelated experiments (including one that would eventually inspire Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon) and rehashes decades’ worth of arguments about whether the obedience experiments went too far. That’s something that viewers should judge for themselves, without being asked to take into account, for example, how Milgram’s early notoriety may have affected his subsequent employment prospects. The magnificence of the first half-hour or so, in particular, provides all the riveting context anyone needs. Read more.