Our human nature is a lake
Where most content themselves to take
A shallow view for comfort’s sake,
But few will dare the deep.
The poets plumb it with their verse,
And nihilists would make it worse
While sages study to reverse
Its ever-waning creep.
When someone dives and brings to light
A bit of psyche to indict
That questions what is wrong and right,
How often do we balk!
We point the finger, hide from view,
Insist that it cannot be true,
And say we’re wiser than the few
Who failed temptation’s knock.
To fear a truth and disregard
Depravities that perish hard
Will leave us only further marred
By lessons left unlearned.
The depths we’d rather not explore
Are those we most should not ignore,
For by the schemer who knows more
Is human nature turned.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for one lone obscenity and some subject matter, could even be PG)
I had never heard of the Milgram experiment before Experimenter, but its social impact is considerable. While hearing of the shock-based college study brought to mind Venkman’s similar parody at the beginning of Ghostbusters, the actual experiment touched upon serious questions ranging from the compliance of Nazi subordinates to social engineering and people’s natural reluctance to rebel against authority. It’s thought-provoking research, which inspired an equally provocative film.
While Experimenter is a scrutiny of Stanley Milgram himself as well as a restaging of his most famous work, it begins where his fame did: the shock experiment. As Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) watches from behind a one-way mirror, his assistant brings in two volunteers, one to answer questions and receive electric shocks for wrong answers and one to administer the questions and shocks. The shock-ee is actually part of the ruse and re-creates sounds of pain from a closed room, while the shocker is urged to continue increasing the voltage no matter what. A majority of participants lacked the will to resist and yielded to pressure to deliver supposedly life-threatening shocks, simply because they were told to. Only 35% refused.
The orchestrated scenario forms the beginning of the film but is also intercut with Milgram’s life, including meeting his eventual wife (Winona Ryder). During all this, Sarsgaard speaks directly to the audience, discussing the experiment and his findings like a purveyor of mental provocation. Indeed, that’s how he sees himself and his job as a social psychologist; he’s merely presenting facts for academia and the public to discern as they will and is surprised at the controversy he attracts. More people seem critical of how he tricked his participants than of their actual responses. Later, Milgram tries to diversify his reputation with different social experiments, like confirming the “Six Degrees of Separation” principle that applies to more than just Kevin Bacon, but he’s always pulled back to his original shock experiment, both by colleagues and in the public eye.
Throughout the film are examples of how Milgram’s work was viewed. He’s forced to conduct followup interviews to test the emotional “damage” done to participants. Uninformed strangers complain about how he shocks people, not even understanding the details of the experiment. When Milgram informs his class that President Kennedy’s been shot, no one believes him, thinking it’s just a hoax to elicit a reaction. In addition, the filmmakers employ some curious creative choices, such as changing some backgrounds into stage-like painted backdrops. At certain points during Milgram’s fourth-wall-breaking narration, an elephant appears behind him, suggesting that he is always followed by “the elephant in the room.”
Sarsgaard does an outstandingly muted job in the role of Milgram, as does Ryder as his wife, though their marital struggles are a bit too generic to compare with the social questions presented. I was surprised at some of the minor supporting players: Jim Gaffigan ventures away from comedy as one of Milgram’s accomplices, while Dennis Haysbert plays Ossie Davis, who appeared with William Shatner in a 1976 TV movie about the Milgram experiment called The Tenth Level. Even the late Anton Yelchin appears in a barely noticeable role as an aide to the experiment.
Experimenter‘s deliberate pace doesn’t make it the most entertaining of biopics, but it’s a psychologically stimulating study that, like Milgram, asks difficult questions for the viewer to consider. As one of Milgram’s colleagues posits about atrocities, “The techniques change, the victims change, but it’s still a question. How do these things happen? How are they institutionalized?” The answers may be disturbing, but they are better off acknowledged than scorned. We as humans hate to think of what any one of us could be capable of under the worst conditions, but the worst parts of human nature are not all-inclusive. Thirty-five percent refused to continue the experiment. Would that include you?
Best line: (Milgram) “Human nature can be studied but not escaped, especially your own.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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