If you’ve taken an Intro to Psychology class, you’ve heard about Stanley Milgram. His most famous experiments involved obedience and how normal people succumb to the effects of authority.
The set up: Subject A is asked to test the memory of Subject B (who’s working with Milgram and in on it). If Subject B cannot properly answer a word pattern question, Subject A flips a switch to give Subject B an electric shock. The shocks get more potent with each mistake, and Subject B’s responses to the shocks become more alarming. And yet Subject A almost always continues to administer shocks simply because an authority figure is in the room urging Subject A to continue.
The Milgram experiment had far-reaching influence in the field of psychology, and also inspired a number of films. The results were even borne-out in real life decades later, as seen in the movie Compliance from director Craig Zobel.
Experimenter is Milgram’s story, and there was more to him than one landmark experiment.
Director: Michael Almereyda
Release Date: October 16, 2015
In my review of Steve Jobs, I mentioned how Aaron Sorkin avoided the trap of the traditional biopic by creating a three-act structure. With Experimenter, writer/director Michael Almereyda also avoids the traditional biopic, in this case by treating his film like a kind of posthumous memoir. Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) goes about his life, but he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera with some commentary. Milgram also provides narration throughout the film, a kind of guided tour through his own life, or maybe through a fictional journal he kept in the afterlife.
Though not identical, Experimenter reminded me at times of the Harvey Pekar movie American Splendor. The Milgram of the movie even gets to see a fictionalized version of himself on a TV shoot.
Experimenter has moments of visual whimsy as well. When noting the links between his shock experiments and the rise of Nazism, an elephant stalks behind him in the hall. Backgrounds are sometimes projected onto a screen, which give a few moments the chintzy feel of a made-for-TV movie as well as a theatrical flair. A lot of Experimenter feels as if it could have been done on stage. I’m still note sure if the whimsy is justified–justifying whimsy makes me sound like a killjoy–but it keeps Experimenter visually interesting even if whimsy is just some play with the biopic form. The idea of deception is key in the ethical discussions about Milgram’s shock experiments, so that may also be a loose justification for all the meta material and artifice.
Since his breakthrough in Boys Don’t Cry, Sarsgaard has been one of America’s most reliably good and yet underrated actors. Even when the role isn’t that great, Sarsgaard has a knack for at least making it work. As Milgram, Sarsgaard provides a sense of scientific remove. The delivery is clinical yet ruminative, as if every few lines should be followed by a curious hum. Winona Ryder plays his wife, Sasha, and though never given a lot to do in the film, she’s solid with what she’s given. The same could be said of the rest of the cast, which is filled with other recognizable character actors and that-guy/that-gal performers, like comedian Jim Gaffigan, Dennis Haysbert, Taryn Manning, Anthony Edwards, and John Leguizamo.
The first third of Experimenter is centered on the shock experiments and meeting Sasha, and the eventual fallout of the experiments in terms of Milgram’s career. His methods are questioned since they are dependent on an ethical breech, but the film’s concern isn’t just the moral issue of the experiment or the ethical conundrums of Milgram’s methods. It branches outward, showing Milgram’s other work as a social psychologist and contributions to his area of study and pop culture. One of Milgram’s other experiments, briefly depicted, involved how we’re all roughly six degrees of separation from one another–it’s from Milgram that we got that phrase.
If Experimenter falters, it’s because it loses focus and a sense of momentum after the shock experiments are over, which might mirror the public interest in Milgram’s post-shock work. We follow Milgram as he grows facial hair and as fashions change, but there’s not necessarily an underlying thesis to latch onto, or a neatly shaped narrative to this take on Milgram’s life. At a certain point, I was watching mostly for Sarsgaard, who held my interest like he usually does.
Maybe Experimenter is a little too clinical and too removed from the urgent human stuff. There’s an overarching sense about moral obligations to help others, and a fundamental interconnectedness about humanity that should make us feel less alone in the world. And yet instead of feeling moved emotionally, I was swayed intellectually. It’s the sensation of hearing someone say something intelligent and showing assent with a hum.