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article imageReview: ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ is as accurate as it is alarming Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Sep 25, 2015 in Entertainment
‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ is an accurate and unsettling re-enactment of the 1971 study that recreated a prison environment with student volunteers to alarming effect.
Particularly following the complicity of normal citizens during World War II, psychologists have been fascinated by the effects of power and authority on people’s behaviour. In many cases, those who have it become sadistic even though they’ve never exhibited comparable qualities previously. On the other hand, those without it become submissive in even the worst circumstances. Numerous experiments have been conducted, but the results of some are better known than others. The Stanford Prison Experiment is one such study that got out of hand rather quickly.
In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his team of graduates placed an ad in a local newspaper offering young men $15/hour to take part in a two-week prison simulation during the summer. They interviewed 75 applicants and selected 24 participants who were than randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards, though the latter would be told they were chosen because they possessed particular qualities. By the end of the first day almost everyone has settled into their roles with some of the guards even appearing a little overzealous. It’s not long before the guards begin abusing their authority and the prisoners start to break under the pressure. The escalation of the mock-up is astounding as is Zimbardo’s tolerance for their exchanges.
It all begins with a single guard, nicknamed “John Wayne” (Michael Angarano), who decides to fully embrace his role and all its negative stereotypes. Soon the others are following suit as if his callousness is contagious. The progression of the activity within the converted psychology department basement is so shocking, it’s like time in the pretend prison was on fast-forward. Attitudes one would expect to develop in days or even weeks appear in a matter of hours. Moreover even though the proceedings evolve in a pretend jail, filmmakers gradually cut out the visual cues that remind everyone it’s fake, matching the experience of the participants. After the first few days, any onlooker (including the most likely stunned viewers) would have to question Zimbardo’s unwillingness to end the study or rein in his subjects.
Before the end of the first week, the guards’ treatment of the prisoners starts to look familiar, resembling some of the worst allegations of abuse in American prisons. By the time the experiment is concluded, they are not far from recreating some of the most infamous images to emerge from Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo did not anticipate these results, but his ethical conduct as the group leader is undoubtedly questionable as he too slips into the role of prison overseer rather than maintaining the distance of the experiment’s administrator.
The cast is a mix of recognizable and new faces, most of which are concealed under fashionable facial hair. Crudup flawlessly portrays Zimbardo’s ambition, which drives his commitment to seeing the experiment through in spite of the many red flags that arise. Nelsan Ellis appears in total contrast to his True Blood persona, playing an ex-con who agrees to be a consultant on the project and becomes unwittingly swept up in the enactment. Angarano, who is usually rather sweet, demonstrates a startling aptitude for portraying the sadistic lead guard, though his real-life counterpart would later say he too was acting a role. Overall, the constricted ensemble cast are very convincing as prisoners under extreme stress and resourcefully cruel guards respectively.
The events that unfold on-screen are quite true to how Zimbardo describes the experiment, including his own failures as a scientist, making the film’s reconstruction chilling — especially due to its implications for humanity and its capacity for brutality.
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Starring: Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano and Nelsan Ellis
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