Anyone who has taken introductory psychology courses has heard of Stanley Milgram, and already accepts his theory on obedience and authority. The film serves as a retrospective on our society and our inability to accept that unquestionable belief in authority can be used to commit atrocities. There’s genocide, like those perpetrated in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, and many other places. It warns of an inherent trust in authority that could easily be abused if it goes unquestioned. At the time, it was an unexamined and undiagnosed problem with wide-scale repercussions, and not just in other countries.
Experimenter makes many smart choices and choosing to have part of the film’s story play out like a staged play helped the narrative exponentially. Milgram isn’t there only for the sake of exposition and scene framing, but also to help establish the viewer as part of the play. We become a fellow scientist and onlooker, engrossing us in the scene as we play our silent part as an observer and then judge. The film imitates a social experiment as much as it does a court case, where Milgram is constantly on trial and forced to defend himself.
The framing device succeeds because it never forces our perspective or tells us what to think or side to take. It trusts in our ability to make our own decisions and to decipher the symbolism for ourselves. The biggest (in size at least) example is the appearance of an elephant in the room behind Milgram whenever he is in between scenes, verbally setting up the next one for us. This “elephant” is something that plagued Milgram after his obedience and authority studies, and would continue to affect his future projects and relationships.
Writer/Director Michael Almereyda taps into his documentary style experience in this biographical story. He clearly establishes every character’s motivation starting with what drives them and what continues to interest them. Milgram was always an astute observationist, and Experimenter sets the stage for him to embody that (literally at times). Every conversation and interaction is never lacking his verbal remarks examining the situation or adding further information that bring greater context to the scenes.
Pacing was an important part that kept this film together, and it was masterfully managed. The film played into the needs of each scene in order to maximize the emotional impact. The experiments were slower, more methodically focused so we can absorb every facial expression and slight moments of hesitation. It was also meant to give us a moment to internalize our own moralistic struggle, wondering why they continued the experiment and casting doubt on our decisions if placed in the same situation.
Peter Sarsgaard embodies Stanley Milgram’s charisma and perceptive nature. There is a natural charm and surprising amount of humor in Sarsgaard’s performance that elevates a potentially one-sided character into a fully fleshed out person. Experimenter doesn’t give any of their characters, including Milgram’s wife played by Winona Ryder, a sterile, clinical treatment. It is not a numbers game where you are bombarded by nothing but data from experiments, but also a look in the life of a man whose intuitive nature shaped his view and gave birth to his ideologies. Ideas not just fueled by his examining demeanor, but also genuine human emotion.
Experimenter serves as a great retrospective on a society that accepts authority and the status quo without question. Now, with the wealth of information at our disposal, we don’t accept any one person’s word on anything. This was Milgram’s goal, even though he never truly got around to figuring out a treatment for the problem. The diagnosis alone made him a pariah in the scientific community and he carried that stigma to the end of his career. Milgram was never able to continue his research, but his message echoes even to our most recent generation. Observe everything and always question it, but never act blindly against what you know to be right. This lesson helped many social movements, all the way from women’s rights and civil rights all the way to the most recent legalization of gay marriage. It is feeding the Black Lives Matter movement and will continue to be a force for positive change as long as we always remember what could happen if we ignore it.
RATING: ★★★★★★★★ (8/10 stars)