Stanley Milgrim and The Experiments that Sparked Public Outcry
In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), conducted a series of radical behavior experiments that tested ordinary humans willingness to obey by using electric shock. “Experimental” follows Milgram, from meeting his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) through his controversial experiments that sparked public outcry.
Milgram as inspired by the atrocities committed during World War II and conducted experiments into the dangerous power of blind obedience in 1961. Unwitting participants were given the task of administering a series of increasingly dangerous electric shocks to a stranger under the instruction of an authoritative force.
Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter” looks at Milgram’s life from 1961 onwards and explores the process behind these tests, the public backlash to them, and Milgram’s relationship with his wife Sasha. The film is filled with a self-aware imagery as it relates Milgram’s life and experiments with a sense of surrealism.
Much of the film is devoted to the initial 1961 Milgram Experiment which is recounted with tense dramatics and an unsettled focus. We see participants gleefully electrocute another man (or so they think). The results of the test continue to be shocking and deeply relevant to today’s society and Almereyda asks us to think about what we would do in this situation. I believe that most of would refuse to harm the other participant, but Milgram will raise some doubts about it. What he tries to show is that we are all capable of cruelty.
Sarsgaard brings a cold and clinical professionalism to the role of Stanley. He is convincing as an overly composed man secretly irritated by the nearsighted colleagues and culture that reigned in the greatness he could have received during his lifetime. The ramifications of his findings related directly to what was being said during the Eichmann trial and which led to another controversial hypothesis of the period from political theorist Hannah Arendt and her theory of the banality of evil. She comes up more than once in discussion here and Milgram’s absent commentary on her theory speaks volumes about, perhaps, his own secret, bitter thoughts about despicable humans that allow atrocities to happen in the name of following orders. The film finely uses Sarsgaard’s perfection of barely contained judgment during the experiments and we also see that Milgrim did have his own secret agenda or motivation. Winona Ryder is excellent as the strong-willed Sasha and the film immediately pulls us in.
Milgrim conducted these experiments at Yale in 1961 and he was fascinated by how Hitler’s Nazi Party was able to exact such terrible depravity upon the Jews during the Holocaust. The results he got were disturbing Milgram’s results are rather disturbing. Participants were asked to pose as a ‘teacher,’ charged to read groups of words to a ‘learner,’ who sat on the other side of a two-way mirror. The teacher was then charged with administering an electric shock each time the learner answered a question incorrectly. With the help of his staff (Anthony Edwards and Jim Gaffigan), their results were unprecedented— 65% of the teachers administering the full shock treatment as directed, though many would engage in weak resistance, each time remitting to the excuse that they were following instructions. But the world at large was not quite ready for Milgram’s findings, which shocked and disturbed his colleagues and it cost Milgrim his academic tenure.
The screenplay is excellent and well performed. Milgram’s results are chilling to comprehend, and Almereyda’s closing about the puppets that human beings tend to be raises awareness of our flawed natures.
The film begins with Milgram’s most incendiary experiments into the human condition, wherein he managed to put two subjects, a teacher and a pupil, into a room and made them administer shocks to a stranger. This was influenced by Milgram’s childhood growing up as a Jew and being influenced by events in the Holocaust, Milgram’s reasoning for his trial appears sound – what could provoke any right minded person into such horrific action? The Milgram experiments clearly had consequences and Almereyda’s exploration and presentation of them is nothing short of a shock to the system.
The film skirts around some issues and some of the ramifications of the experiments but Almereyda’s is not interested in anything more than using the style and the effortless ease of his leading man to present a fascinating take on his subject. Despite the alarming questions the study raised about human nature, the film is relaxed and a humorous and upbeat account of a fascinating phenomenon.