Experimenter is a dramatic feature about the life and work of Stanley Milgram, whose extensive Yale study is probably the 20th century’s best-known psychological experiment. You know, the one with the fake electric shocks? It’s a measure of the study’s significance that, more than 50 years after it was conducted, just that simple description will identify it in minds of many.
In 1961, Milgram, a young social psychologist, wanted to study obedience and authority, but he told his subjects he was testing something else, whether punishment helped people learn. He put a “teacher” in one room in front of a console that supposedly administered painful electric shocks, and a “learner” in the other, bound to a chair and hooked up to wires. Every time the learner answered a question wrong, the teacher had to administer what he or she thought was an electric shock. With each wrong answer, the shock level was increased.
Milgram found, to his horror and astonishment, that in two-thirds of the cases, the teachers, despite their misgivings, went ahead and completed the full round of shocks, despite the learner’s screaming and begging, and despite their own belief that these shocks were dangerous and perhaps even fatal. They obeyed, not because they were forced but because someone in a lab coat, in authority, told them to proceed.
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, Experimenter devotes sufficient time to the Yale experiment but also delves into its equally fascinating aftermath. Milgram considered his findings “terrifying and depressing,” because they indicated that American society was vulnerable to malevolent authority. But many of his colleagues, either jealous of his success or wanting to kill the messenger, denied the importance of his study and questioned his methods.
The beauty of Almereyda’s approach is that he acknowledges, just in the way he films and organizes the story, that Milgram’s research revealed something weird and unsettling within human nature. So he honors Milgram and creates the appropriate effect by making the film just as weird and unsettling.
As Milgram, Peter Sarsgaard narrates his own story on camera, sometimes walking down a corridor with an elephant following him. Often, in the midst of a scene, he will turn to the camera and start addressing the audience.
When, early in the film, he refers to “my daughter, who at this point in the story hasn’t been born,” we realize that we are not seeing some 1960s Milgram but some omniscient, out-of-time version. Sarsgaard adopts a manner, so natural to him and so in keeping with the real-life Milgram, of distance and internality, as though he knows his own story before it happens.
The effect is sad and eerie, but with an edge of comic absurdity, especially when Milgram is asked to consult on a TV movie about his own study. For the TV movie, his name and personal story are changed, and he’s played by William Shatner, played here by Kellan Lutz as a preening, irritating egomaniac. (This was at least two decades before Shatner transformed into a preening, lovable egomaniac.) If you’re curious, you can augment your viewing experience by watching parts of the ghastly TV movie on YouTube (The Tenth Level from 1976) and contrast it with the riveting real-life footage from Milgram’s study the decade before.
As a Jew whose family came to the United States in 1933, Milgram wanted to understand the human mechanism that allowed Germans in World War II to follow orders and commit acts of unfathomable cruelty. Sarsgaard’s Milgram knows he can’t count on people, that behind the social facade of friendliness is a dangerous impulse to conform, to stick with the pack and cast out the rest. On a much less destructive level (but still damaging), this translates into his being denied tenure by his colleagues, despite his important work.
Seemingly loose and free-associative in style, Experimenter builds to an effect and, for all its humor — or rather, through its humor — makes a sober and chilling point. Maybe it’s not just a matter of people feeling they must follow orders. Maybe people want to follow orders because they crave permission to be cruel. In wartime, this impulse, when let loose, can be catastrophic, but even just on a day-to-day basis — the cop who gives you an unjust ticket, the person behind the counter who won’t cooperate — it has a way of souring life.
Exclusive: The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder
Rated: PG-13 (thematic material, brief strong language)
Running time: 98 min.