Published on November 14th, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant


Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story

What would you do if you were ordered to harm another person? Experimenter looks at the Milgram Experiments and tells us we’d probably do harm.

Is it possible that you or I would have been an agent of destruction during the Holocaust? How much are duty and compliance to authority a factor in our actions, versus our own internal logic and personal moral compasses? As the quote goes, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I’m sure we all think we’d stand up for the little guy when it really counted, but the truth is, most people don’t. You probably wouldn’t do the right thing. I probably wouldn’t do the right thing.

Case in point: The Milgram Experiments. Nazis war criminals and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, Adolph Eichmann, were the inspiration for one of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale conducted his famous and controversial obedience experiments at Yale in the 60s, shortly after Eichmann’s prosecution at the Nuremberg War Criminal Trials. Eichmann and other Nazis justified their acts of genocide against the Jewish people by claiming a defense of obedience — the old line that says, “Hey, I was just following orders.”

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story, the movie with the clunkiest title in recent memory, tells the story of Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and his career, focusing mostly on his obedience research. In these experiments, a subject was told that he had to teach another person to memorize certain word combinations, and if the person was unsuccessful, the subject was to administer a shock to them. No one was really shocked — the only person not in on the true nature of the experiment were the subjects, who were egged along to continue the experiment by an authority figure, the scientist conducting the experiment. In almost all of the cases, the subject, no matter how uncomfortable they were, would continue to shock the poor soul on the other end, even when they could hear the other human being screaming in pain.

The experiments themselves were, and still are, controversial, from the standpoint of scientific ethics. The film references the old Allen Funt Candid Camera TV show, the precursor to a lot of shows like Punk’d or reality TV in general. Candid Camera was also very cutting edge and shocking to some people in its time. What ruffled feathers is the question of whether subjects should have the right to know they’re being lied to for the sake of the experiment? But sadly, all these fascinating ins-and-outs to the ideas at play here expose the major flaw in the film — there’s very little drama to be found. Even when the scientific community persecutes Milgram.

In fact, the film itself plays like a live action Wikipedia article (though reading the Wikipedia page would be faster). Sarsgaard/Milgram is constantly breaking the 4th wall for no real reason that helps the story, and worse, much of the film is narrated, throwing out the old ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. Experimenter is constantly explaining things to us, rather than giving us scenes that portray what happened. There is a scene where a student berates him, and rather than discuss the conflict with the reflective character, his wife (Winona Ryder), who is right there, we go into voice over.

To further my Wikipedia analogy, I’ll say that for a movie about the ‘life’ of Stanley Milgram, insights and details are scant; the film mostly plays like a point form list of the different experiments he did over time. There is more drama found in a scene where Milgram watches William Shatner and Ossie Davis (not played by themselves, of course) act out the experiments for a film version of his life. The fake, scripted movie within a movie has more drama in a few minutes than the rest of the actual picture. The script could have used a few jolts of electricity itself.

Experimenter tries to add some flourish to work beyond what was obviously a small budget, which I appreciate, even if some of the ideas, like placing certain scenes jarringly against a fake background, don’t always take flight. The movie also does a decent job of exploring the reasons for the experiments and looking at men like Eichmann to ask that central question about obedience. It ties in themes like obedience and deception smartly, but unfortunately, while the subject is infinitely interesting, as a viewer watching a film, you’re left with very little beyond that.

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is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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