Runtime: 1 hr. 48 min. | Rated PG-13 | $6.50 at Athena Cinema
How and why can good people be influenced to do bad things? How does the average German citizen allow something like the Holocaust to happen? In the 1960s, American social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, conducted experiments that proved how easy it is for authority figures to force ordinary people to harm others.
Experimenter (starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder) is a biopic of Stanley Milgram’s later life and focuses on his controversial “Milgram experiments.” In over 1,000 separate trials, he found that people would usually administer fatal shocks to a stranger if an authority figure told them to. The person thought to have been in pain was a confederate, an actor in on the experiment. They would scream, demand to leave and would bang on the walls. Eventually Milgram did a variation of the experiment where test subjects would forcibly hold down the confederate’s hand on a shock panel. Still the subjects overwhelmingly obeyed the authority figure – just an actor pretending to be a psychologist.
The movie depicts these experiments masterfully with convincing performances and great pacing. During each trial, Milgram narrates to the audience the most important thing that he notices and each is philosophical and interesting. Every different outcome is presented and each variation to the experiment is showed which furthers our understanding of it.
While the focus of the film is on these experiments and what came of them in the succeeding decades, there is time dedicated his family life and other similar experiments that he did and did not conduct.
These similar experiments were interesting in themselves but their purpose in the movie is uncertain, other than Milgram further philosophizing directly to the audience that people are conformists and obey authority. Perhaps they are only there to drive home what the Milgram experiment already told us.
Another curious thing about the film is its sporadic use of green screen to make it look like a play. Still images, black and white footage and paintings made to look like a set will sometimes command the background. Then the next scene will be on location at an airport or a nice looking set. Also, an Elephant will sometimes follow Milgram as he monologizes down a hallway (referencing the idiom “Elephant in the room” maybe?).
These quirky parts of the film are stylistic choices, but ultimately they’re unnecessary. Everything else is played so natural and convincing that intentionally bad looking backgrounds and other abstract visuals are jarring.
Experimenter is full of great performances and has interesting subject matter. But, once the Milgram experiments end the remaining movie is jumbled and unfocused. A better screenplay and more realistic look could have really made the theme and Milgram’s life much more entertaining to watch.
Experimenter is currently at the Athena Cinema and plays daily at 5:10, 7:40 and 9:40 with Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3:10. It is also available on demand.