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article imageReview: ‘Experimenter’ is the human perspective of a scientific coup Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Oct 19, 2015 in Entertainment
‘Experimenter’ is an unconventional biopic chronicling Stanley Milgram’s behavioural research and the varied impact it would have on the rest of his career, featuring an outstanding performance by Peter Sarsgaard.
Research conducted in the name of science cannot always justify one’s work; rather harm to the subject is a better indicator of whether a test is defensible. Adding a preposition to the title of this film may have given it a negative connotation, implying the protagonist was the villain in a tale of horror — though there are some in his field who would have you believe just that. Experimenter is the story of Stanley Milgram, whose obedience studies would shake-up the academic community.
Stanley Milgram’s (Peter Sarsgaard) parents escaped Europe in the ‘40s, saving them from the atrocities of the Holocaust. However he was haunted by the events of World War II and how such brutality could be achieved on such massive levels. In his capacity as a social psychologist, in the ‘60s he designed behavioural experiments which measured people’s willingness to obey authority. In brief, two participants were designated “teacher” and “learner” (Jim Gaffigan), though the latter was actually a member of the research team. The teacher was instructed to give the learner a shock, which increased in intensity up to 450 volts, whenever he provided a wrong answer. Throughout the process the learner would protest and the teacher would be politely directed to continue by the man in the lab coat monitoring the test — the trial evaluated the teacher’s readiness to follow the commands of an authority figure. Astonishingly, 65 per cent of participants — regardless of race or gender — went all the way to the end, delivering shocks that may have been fatal to the learner; and not even one in a thousand attempted to check on the learner’s condition themselves.
Milgram would go on to conduct more classical research, such as the “lost letter” technique to assess public opinion and the small world social networking experiment, which is the basis of the concept of “six degrees of separation.” But his obedience work consistently threatened to overshadow everything else, so in 1974 he published the book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, and would later be misrepresented by the made-for-TV movie, The Tenth Level, starring William Shatner (Kellan Lutz). Throughout all the ups and downs, Milgram’s wife, Sasha (Winona Ryder), supported him and reaffirmed his sense of empathy and ethics.
It’s apropos that this film should be released so near The Stanford Prison Experiment as these findings are often cited together when discussing the manner in which particular atrocities could be executed with the cooperation of ordinary citizens. However this movie takes the form of a biopic, reviewing Milgram’s research and exploring how it would affect the remainder of his career, which was cut short by his death at 51. Writer/director Michael Almereyda invites viewers into Milgram’s mind by allowing Sarsgaard to narrate the story from within the movie, often taking a moment to address the audience, and using additional imagery to playfully broach certain issues. The most amusing of these is the “elephant in the room” that follows Milgram as he discloses his Jewish heritage and its connection to his interest in human nature, which was heightened by the trial of infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
The movie’s only shortcoming is also a source of its fascination — Almereyda’s attempt to cover so much history in only 90 minutes. The commentary helps account for the time lost as the story skips ahead several years at once, but it still feels somewhat rushed. The truncated account of such an accomplished career likely could have supported a slightly longer running time that allowed a little more elaboration. This constraint is most evident when dealing with the agreement surrounding the TV movie. On the other hand, it does provide an intriguing portrait of a man whose work was distorted in the public eye in spite of his revolutionary contributions to science.
Due to his dual role in the picture as storyteller and subject, the film relies primarily on the quality of Sarsgaard’s performance. Fortunately he is stellar in both parts, altering his manner just enough so the audience recognizes he is addressing them in a scene before returning to the events already in progress. As the movie also spans several decades, his look changes drastically over the course of the narrative (including a hideous beard subtly compared to Abraham Lincoln’s when he was working in New York). Ryder’s character is genuinely interested in her husband’s work, taking an active part when possible and championing him and his research at every turn. However she’s not just a pretty face, often demonstrating she has a firm understanding rather than simply offering blind support. The convincing subjects of the experiment are also composed of some familiar faces, including Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin.
In the end, the questions remains the same: “What would you do?” and “How can you be so certain?”
Director: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and Jim Gaffigan
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