Experimenter | Michael Almereyda | USA | 2015 | 90 minutes
Michael Almereyda (Nadja, Hamlet) returns with a stylistically playful biopic of experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram. Craig Johnson concludes that Experimenter is a fascinating story cleverly told.
When a movie character looks into the camera to address the audience, it is normally a gesture to draw the audience in. Stanley Milgram, the hero of Michael Almereyda’s biopic, Experimenter, has many such asides. But there’s something strange and new in how Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) breaks the fourth wall. Whenever he turns his sleepy eyes towards the camera it doesn’t feel like he’s looking at the audience. It has the unsettling feeling that he is watching us.
This is only appropriate since Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) is one of history’s greatest and most controversial experimental psychologists. Milgram spent his short lifetime watching humans do their thing, so it only follows reason that he would want to observe our reactions to his life.
We meet our hero conducting his most famous experiment, testing obedience. Will people follow instructions, even if it means potentially torturing a stranger? The experiment, you should know, is filled with lies: the test subjects don’t know everyone else involved are actors; the buttons they are told to push don’t really deliver an electric shock; they aren’t even told the true nature of the experiment. But, these lies are meant to expose a deeper truth, a truth both psychological and philosophical: why does authority effect people’s actions even when those actions are bad, and why don’t people revolt against the revolting?
This was, and still is, quite controversial, but the real world applications of the Milgram Obedience Experiment are vast. The most obvious example was happening simultaneously with this study: Adolf Eichmann was on trial for crimes against humanity, pleading that he, too, was just obeying orders. Milgram was proving the banality of evil in a lab at the same time as it was being proven in a court of law.
Early on, Sarsgaard plays Milgram as either coldly detached or piercingly cruel, almost scolding his subjects for proving his theory correct. It’s a gutsy move to have the hero of the movie come across as so caustic, so soon, but it is a testament to Sarsgaard’s charm and talent that he soon draws us in, making us appreciate and understand Milgram’s eccentric methods and personality, while never demanding that we love him.
Dr. Milgram is a far better subject for a movie than an experimental psychologist should rightly be, because so many of his experiments are dramatic, visually interesting and, frankly, fun. When it comes to his work he describes himself as an “illusionist” and the means he uses to achieve results can sometimes border on the prankish.
Michael Almereyda also has a prankish demeanor as a director—see also his quirky take on Hamlet (2000) with Ethan Hawke. Almereyda has Mrs. Milgram (Winona Ryder) complain that a T.V. movie based on the Obedience Experiment has cast a “goy actor” straight to Sarsgaard’s oh-so Danish face. An even deeper joke is that said actor, Star Trek‘s William Shatner, only looks like a goy when he is in fact entirely Jewish. (Shatner starred as the Milgram-inspired Professor Turner in The Tenth Level in 1976.)
This is just one of the amusing ways that Experimenter playfully calls attention to itself as a movie. When the Milgrams drive to an old friend’s house, the scene uses the ancient Hollywood trick of having the actors in a prop car in front of a projection. It is wantonly fake. So much so, that the projection isn’t even in color. When they get to the house, it is also a projection, in front of which the actors sip tea.
I’m sure Almereyda was commenting on truth vs. fiction or some other Brechtian excuse, but for me it was mostly a pleasant diversion in the form of some cheap old timey spectacle. He also dabbles in split screen, plays with chronology, uses copious narration, and occasionally cuts to documentary footage.
Sometimes he steps over the stylistic line, as when he brings a live elephant into a room as a symbol. But still that’s fun to see, because Hey! An elephant! The audience’s patience for this type of thing may vary, but I see no sin in this playfulness. Anything that steers the film away from the usual biopic tropes is appreciated.
People may not be rushing to see a film about a notable experimental psychologist as they would a movie about a world leader or famous musician. Do not let Milgram’s relative obscurity deter you, because this is a fascinating story cleverly told.
Biopics either build pedestals for Notable Humans to stand on, or pull back the curtain to show that the Notables are flawed just like us. Experimenter is a rare thing: it neither damns nor praises the Notable. Milgram’s life cannot be seen as black or white, which is only appropriate for a man who spent his life proving that to be human is to live in shades of gray.
Update 2/6/16: Experimenter is now available to stream on Netflix.