As you may have noticed, we recently caught The Stanford Prison Experiment in a Bytowne double-bill. As you also may have noticed, we are at the New Hampshire Film Festival this weekend taking in a ton of films and discovering we may not be festival-ed out yet! It helps that the NHFF, in its 15 year, is a complete change of pace from the frenzied, big city, line-up centric, atmosphere of TIFF. Here, you show up ten minutes before each movie and walk right in, and the program/map included with your pass (which I’ve looked at about a thousand times already) makes clear that at most it will be an eight minute walk between theatres, and so far we haven’t even had to go that far to catch four movies yesterday.
One of those four movies was Experimenter, which tells the story of Stanley Milgram, who will be familiar to anyone who has taken a post-secondary science course or two. Dr. Milgram was the genius behind the obedience experiment. To refresh your memory, or bring you up to speed, the experiment on its face purported to test the effect of negative reinforcement on learning. Two subjects came in together, with one being randomly assigned the role of teacher and the other being the student. Put in adjacent rooms, the teacher spoke through a one-way microphone and gave multiple choice questions to the student, who then got an electric shock for every wrong answer, with the strength of the shock increasing every time. To give the teacher a taste of the effect, the lowest-level shock (of 45V) was given to the teacher before the test began. Every teacher thought even that low-level shock was painful. Throughout the test, the teachers could hear the student through the wall, howling in pain and begging to stop. Though all teachers were visibly uncomfortable with the students’ anguish, 65% of them proceeded all the way through the test, with the last shock being administered to an unresponsive student (as a lack of response was considered a wrong response). The teachers were never forced to administer a shock though they were told it was a necessary part of the experiment and asked to keep going. And they did, even though the last shock was 450V!
Then the curtain was pulled back. This was not a test of the student, it was a test of the teacher. The student was always the same person, i.e., one of the experimenters. He was not being shocked but instead had been recorded making anguished noises. The experiment was designed to examine why humans are so willing to give in to authority, as demonstrated particularly by the Holocaust.
It was a controversial study at the time and still remains so to this day. For me, I think it’s fascinating and necessary. The deception has to happen in order to get past the natural instinct that we all have, namely that if we were put in that scenario we would not shock the person. But over and over this experiment and its successors have proven that more than half of us are lying to ourselves.
Experimenter is worth seeing for that experiment alone. It’s a brilliant illustration of our latent defects and brings to light the evil even “good” (/normal) people are capable of, and what we need to fight against when we are subjected to authority, in order to keep our humanity. That experiment is rightly where Experimenter puts its focus, but unlike The Stanford Prison Experiment, Experimenter looks at a lot of Dr. Milgram’s other work, which was equally brilliant (Six Degrees of Separation!). That extra material was welcome to me but it’s just a taste of it, as there simply isn’t enough time to give the other experiments much attention. Still, I think their inclusion was a good choice in order to show us Dr. Milgram was not a one hit wonder, and also give us a sense of the extent to which the obedience experiment monopolized Dr. Milgram’s professional and personal life despite his best efforts to move on.
I had some issues with the manner in which this story is delivered to us, though. There are quite a few uneven parts of Experimenter, and some distracting choices made here in bringing the story to screen. Two items stood out the most to me.
First, Dr. Milgrom speaks directly to us, which I think sped up the delivery of a lot of material to us but took me out of the cinematic experience and turned me into a student rather than a moviegoer. Perhaps that was the intention but I think it detracted from the experience for me.
Second, there are several scenes with roughed-in backgrounds that clash directly with our foreground characters (e.g., a visit to a mentor’s house where our protagonists sit on furniture that has inexplicably been placed in front of a black and white 2D living room backdrop). I could not figure out why this was happening during the movie and trying to figure out the reason distracted me throughout the movie (and that was not the only scene that had me thinking similar thoughts). Afterward, Jay mentioned that maybe it was roughed in for the time being with the intention of being replaced, and I hope that is the case.
Despite those minor issues, this movie is so worthwhile. I think you will find it fascinating and it does a great job of capturing the effect of the obedience experiment on everyone that it touched, whether directly or indirectly. and as a bonus gives us a bit of insight into a brilliant scientist who opened our eyes to a truth that is hard to for us accept, but an integral part of our nature that we need to know about in order to resist.
I give the Experimenter seven dangerous shocks out of ten.