Tribeca Review: The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking The Truth


As I was beginning to finalize my coverage of the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival, a random movie popped up that took me completely by surprise. Usually, I scour every category and note about 20-30 movies that I’m interested in and then whittle down my coverage from there to a group of 6 or 7 movies that stand out to me or that I have access to via press contacts. Despite my laborious vetting process, I never knew there would be a screening of The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking The Truth. I have no idea how I missed that in my initial search through Tribeca’s slate this year, but it immediately shot up to the top of my watch list. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment has become a bit of a pop culture phenomenon that I learned about when I was in school. This test, conducted in the 70s, apparently showed the depravity of humans and was used as a justification that there’s a little bit of evil in everyone and absolute power can and will corrupt absolutely. It was a bold claim, one that was bolstered by my cynical worldview, and I won’t lie to you and say that I had my suspicions about the validity of the test back when I first learned about it. I simply accepted the results that affirmed my bias and then moved on. But looking back on the test, and everything that The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking The Truth addresses, it’s hard for me to look at that psychological test as anything other than a complete farce of a scientific study. 

Review: The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking The Truth

The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking The Truth
Director: Juliette Eisner
Release Date: June 14, 2024 (Tribeca Film Festival)

Serving as the first episode of a three-part docuseries by National Geographic, The Standford Prison Experiment: Unlocking the Truth takes its time in this first segment to explain exactly what the Stanford Prison Experiment was. For those who are unaware, this psychological experiment took place in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University and enlisted several college-aged students to conduct a test on the conditions inside of a prison. Half of the volunteers were assigned as guards and the other half as inmates. Over the course of six days, the test ultimately displayed that the guards began to abuse their power and subject the prisoners to worse and worse conditions until the head of the test, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, shut it down because of the inhumanity of the guards. The ultimate conclusion Zimbardo drew from it was that people are inherently evil and people will abuse whatever power you give them. 

Except, that’s not really what happened during the experiment. The documentary reunites several of the prisoners and guards to explain their role in the documentary and their perspectives about why they entered the test, what it was like being tested, and the aftereffects of it. As they talk, we learn about what most of the participants were up to after the conclusion of the test and how almost all of them felt that Zimbardo and his study were horribly flawed and his conclusions were built on bad interferences. 

For example, a significant portion of the documentary centers on Dave Eshelman, the guard that the prisoners began to refer to as John Wayne. Eshelman was the most feared of all of the guards there and is usually the center of Zimbardo’s arguments as a prime example of a person put into authority who abuses their power. However, Eshelman says upfront that he was an actor and considered it an improv exercise. He wanted to develop a villainous character and his acting teacher suggested that he use the experiment to refine that character for future auditions. He didn’t truly believe anything he said as John Wayne and instead saw the experiment as a chance to refine his acting abilities and get paid in the process. A prisoner, Doug Korpi, is also trotted out by Zimbardo as an example of how a person could break under extreme pressure and duress, but Korpi only “broke” because he realized he wouldn’t be able to read while participating in the test so he acted insane so he could get out early and get back to his life.

Review: The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking The Truth

There are some moments where we do genuinely see how the experiment affected some of the guards and prisoners, but those moments are undermined by Zimbardo’s focus on finding a specific narrative to push. Everyone agrees that Zimbardo’s desire to create this compelling and convincing narrative was probably his number one concern, with records uncovered by other psychologists showing just how much he tampered with the experiment to get his desired outcome. Not only is The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking The Truth an expose to the real truth behind the experiment, but also a deep dive into Dr. Zimbardo and how he benefitted from this test and created a narrative that allowed him to stay relevant for decades through media appearances and books on the subject.

It’s a fascinating watch, not only because of how easily and succinctly the former guards and inmates poke holes into the myth of the Stanford Prison Experiment but also because of how wonderfully it’s presented. Not only are authentic audio and video files from the 70s used to detail the events of the experiment but they’re supplemented by reenactments so convincing that there were times I was damned certain I was watching the real footage from the 70s. There’s a real devotion to making this documentary as authentic as possible and striving to explore all angles of the experiment. From the participants, other psychologists, documentarians, news anchors, and Zimbardo himself, no stone is left unturned in trying to paint a complete picture of what the Stanford Prison Experiment was really like. 

If anything, my biggest criticism of this documentary is how it ended. The documentary concludes with Zimbardo being introduced and starting to be interviewed and the original participants meeting for the first time in over 50 years on the reenactment set and beginning to tour it. Then suddenly it cuts to black and the credits roll. Initially, I was deflated because just as we were about to get into some juicy commentary and situations, the film decided to end. It was only after a little bit that I remembered this was just part one of a three-part documentary series and while I’m still a bit miffed at the cliffhanger it ended on, it made me even more determined to watch this documentary in its entirety. I feel compelled to see how Zimbardo responds to the allegations and how the former participants approach one another after all these years. 

There are plenty of psychological discussions to be had about The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking The Truth’s discoveries, but ultimately the movie conveyed all of its points wonderfully and made me eager to dissect this topic even more. Performing a post-mortem on this infamous scientific experiment was fascinating to watch and it was by far the most engaging and exciting I saw during my time at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. 



Despite it being only part one in a docuseries, the first episode of The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking The Truth immediately grabs you and engages you in a way few documentaries can.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.