At one point in Experimenter, the social psychologist Dr. Stanley Milgram, played by Peter Sarsgaard, walks into his classroom at Harvard, and announces that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. His students react not to the news, but to the man who delivered it. “It’s another of his experiments,” one student whispers to another. A woman accuses her teacher of making a fake radio play, “like Orson Welles.” Dr. Milgram replies: “This is real,” and walks out of the classroom.
This movie might be called Experimenter, but one cannot filter the experiments from the man who conducted them, Dr. Stanley Milgram. An experimental social psychologist, Dr. Milgram became famous after a series of studies he conducted in 1961-1962 that have become known as The Milgram Experiment.
Milgram led subjects to believe that they were participating in a study on discipline and learning, to see what effect punishment would have on memory. A teacher would ask a series of questions, and if the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher would use electric shock as punishment. The more incorrect answers, the higher voltage the shock, reaching levels claiming to be “extremely painful.” As the shock ramps up, the subject hears a man in pain, pounding, crying out to the stop the experiment, and eventually going silent (in Experimenter, standup comic Jim Gaffigan plays the role of the actor being tortured). Occasionally, concern for the man being shocked would arise, or opposition to the experiment itself would halt the process. At which point, a research lab assistant states something to the effect of, “the experiment must go on,” or, “please continue,” or “we accept responsibility for the learner.” The subject would then continue, or object further, and leave.
This was the illusion (or deception, depending on one’s view of the ethics involved) of the Milgram Experiments. In reality, there was no electric shock taking place and the study was not about learning and punishment. The real subject of Milgram’s work was obedience. Would a person voluntarily electrocute another person only because they are told to do so?
Milgram’s study says yes. The experiment found that 65% of participants would provide the full range of electric shocks, up to 450 volts, regardless of how emotionally or morally difficult they found the act. And it’s clear that the experience was torturous for many. One participant (John Leguizamo) had the following exchange with Dr. Millgram after the experiment concluded:
Milgram: Why did you give the man the shocks?
Subject: As you could see, I wanted to stop. Each time I gave him a shock the guy hollered.
Milgram: Did it seem as if he was in pain?
Milgram: Why didn’t you stop, when he asked you stop the experiment.
Subject: Because [the lab assistant] told me to continue.
Milgram: Why did you listen that man instead the man in pain?
Subject: Because I thought the experiment depended on me. And nobody asked me to stop.
Milgram: He asked you to stop.
Subject: That’s true, but he is the subject, shall we say
Milgram: Who bore the responsibility for the fact that this man was being shocked?
Subject: I don’t know.
Ever since the results of the Milgram Experiment were published in 1963, the ethics of the experiment have been criticized, and the results controversial. In essence the study finds, to quote Milgram in Experimenter, “that people don’t have the resources to reject authority.” We are, you could say, just following orders. Only days after the Milgram Experiment was concluded, Eichmann was executed for orchestrating the Nazi Party’s execution of Jews in the Holocaust.
“These results,” Milgram says, speaking directly to the camera, “are terrifying and depressing.” They suggest, to Milgram anyway, that individuals will subject their personal choices to the direction of authority with almost no reservation.
Michael Almereyda wrote and directed Experimenter. His previous work includes two Shakeaspeare adaptations starring Ethan Hawke (an ill-conceived drug-world version of Cymbeline and an underrated Hamlet set in corporate America), and a series of short-films and documentaries. He is a conceptual filmmaker, interested not just in stories, but how the craft of film interacts with stories, and how the medium adapts inside of a story.
With Experimenter, Almereyda has found fertile ground.
Experimenter takes the basic form of a biopic. Milgram’s life is detailed. We see the first time he met his wife, Sasha (played by Winona Ryder with a calm that helps offset the somber Sarsgaard). The couple will have a few kids, work together. As Milgram’s work becomes known, then controversial, then the subject of public outcry, their relationship is tested in depth. It’s all here, in biopic fashion.
Instead of delivering a straight biography–there is enough material in Milgram to do so–Almereyda has made a work that blurs the lines of reality and deception, of theater and film, of stories and lies. The director’s skillful execution of the complex screenplay never allows the viewer to forget the distance between audience and screen; that we are watching an illusion (a movie) about a deceptive social experiment, that provides illusive and uncertain truths about humanity.
In Experimenter, Dr. Milgram is an omniscient narrator, addressing the audience directly to discuss his background, why he wanted to study obedience, and how it changed his life. The monologues are made during breaks in the action, sometimes breaking the limits of the film itself. During one, Milgram walks down the halls of Harvard, followed by an elephant, as he explains that his real is interest is in genocide. A Jewish man of Hungarian and Romanian descent, he considers his family’s successful avoidance of extermination and relocation to the United States a matter of chance. All of his research is focused on these matters; basically, how can someone choose to participate in systematic evil. How, he asks, can “civilized human beings participate in destructive, inhumane acts?”
Almereyda goes for hard emotional truths that Milgram’s experiments expose (if there are any). One of the most profound is that, despite the manner in which Milgran’s experiments were conducted, the results are real: most people did push the button, even if they did not want to, only because they were told to. That fact exists, no matter what one thinks of Milgram or his experiment.
No one seems more disappointed by that fact than Milgram. Sarsgaard gives him an inescapable melancholy; rarely does he smile or laugh, even when things were good. He found successes in his research, professional and public. The first time he is in the NY Times, he says, “It’s odd to see your name in the paper. But I think I could get used to it.” We wonder if he is after the attention, and of course, he is. But his popular success doesn’t keep him from academic rejection.
Eventually, and to the great success of Experimenter, Almereyda gives into the illusion and confusion of the Milgram Experiment. There is an element of falsity throughout the film, but at one point, reality starts to disappear. The story remains straight, but the backgrounds are false. An exchange with a former professor is set on a stage holding four chairs, the camera in the audience, watching.
The idea of the spectator is central to Experimenter. The first third of the film consists largely of Milgram watching his experiments unfold. Later he will be our guide and narrator through a theatrical re-telling of his own life. Eventually, in a kind of parody of both Milgram and Experimenter itself, a TV producer will seek to turn Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority: An Experiment View, into a fictionalized made-for-TV movie. Milgram has concerns about a film adaptation of his experiments, but they’re ignored. Milgram will visit the set, where William Shatner plays the fictional Milgram, and Ossie Davis, his best friend and colleague.
The illusion of Milgram’s experiments by this time has become a fiction entirely, a role to be played by Captain Kirk. Such a scene contains everything that Almereyda is up to in Experimenter. The life of a complex man who did difficult, possibly immoral experiments on unwitting people, in order to find out how humans could do unspeakable acts of violence against one another, is boiled down to a movie, about a movie, about a man, who told us something that we all already know: We can study human nature, but we cannot escape it.