Searching for the root of all evil: My review of Experimenter

A- Biopic

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda

Why do so many people do what they’re told, even when the orders given to them are manifestly immoral? That’s what social phycologist Stanley Milgram set out to discover in the early 1960s. His testing methods were controversial, but his results could not be ignored. Michael Almereyda’s engaging biopic uses realism and whimsical expressionism to bring us into these tests, show us how they were done, and reveal how their resulting notoriety effected the rest of his life.

Even if you don’t recognize Milgram’s name, you’ve probably heard about his experiments. Under the ruse of testing how punishment effects learning, Milgram and his assistants would have one person “punish” another with increasingly greater electric shocks. The “victim” was in on the ruse, and would scream in agony while remaining perfectly comfortable. The real idea was to see how many people would continue to torture a fellow human because an authority figure insisted on it.

Most people continued to torture.

The test results became controversial as soon as they were published. Many objected to what Milgram put his subjects through, making them believe that they were hurting someone. Milgram wrote a book on the subject and continued as a college professor, but his academic career was hurt by the controversy.

I don’t know enough about Milgram to have an opinion on the debate, but Almereyda unquestionably takes Milgram’s side. He tells us cinematically that no one was hurt, and that the people who thought they were torturers were let down as easily as possible.

Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard in the movie) was an American Jew, working under the shadow of the then-recent Holocaust. The big question–why did so many people follow such horrible orders–was a big one at the time. The Holocaust, and Milgram’s ethnicity (there’s no hint that he’s in any way religious) come up again and again in the story.

While the film concentrates on his career, it spends time on his private life. Winona Ryder plays the love of his life, and it’s wonderful to see her again after all these years. She plays the conventional loving and supporting wife, but with an intelligence that suggests that she understands her husband’s work and easily becomes part of it.

Almereyda takes some unusual directions in telling Milgram’s story. Sarsgaard narrates the story as Milgram, addressing the camera directly ala Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. Twice, he narrates while walking through a college hallway, with an elephant inexplicitly following him. (Why? Your guess is as good as mine.) A few scenes are set against obviously, and I have to assume intentionally, fake backdrops.

Almost all of the characters in the film are actual people, and they seldom looked like the men and women they were playing. This was only a problem in a couple of scenes involving famous celebrities. Tom Bateman does not look like Dick Cavett, and Kellan Lutz most definitely does not match William Shatner. The short scenes with them felt jarring.

Which is too bad, because the scene with Shatner (and Dennis Haysbert as Ossie Davis) was the funniest in the film. Here Milgram, working as a paid but powerless consultant, has to watch the creation of a very bad TV movie loosely based on his work.

I’m so glad we now have a good movie on the subject.