Social Scientists Behaving Badly (REVIEWS: The Stanford Prison Experiment and Experimenter)

24 12 2015

The Stanford Prison ExperimentIn my first semester of college, I took an introductory sociology class on a whim and wound up loving it so much that I added fifteen additional hours to my schedule to make it my second major. Ironically, in my final semester of college, two infamous experiments in the field of social science that captivated me in that first class made their way to the big screen.

Both premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, garnered respectable reviews and picked up distribution from heavy-hitting indie distributors. Though I’m reviewing them in tandem because the opportunity was too good to pass up, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” depicts a study in which professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) threw college students looking for a little extra cash into a staged environment deemed unethical by most in his field. The assignment was simple: in a lab-created prison, each received an assignment of prisoner or guard which they were to act out. To say they began to take these roles a little bit too seriously is the understatement of the century as harmless animosity spirals out of control into actual violence.

At one point during the experiment, a colleague interrogates Zimbardo and asks him what independent variable he was measuring – that is, what change he was hoping to observe in his study. Zimbardo does not have an answer, and it’s hard not to feel like the movie is similarly grasping at straws when it comes to what exactly the experiment was trying to examine. Beyond mere power relations and the willingness of humans to commit atrocities against each other, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” does little to illuminate the intellectual concepts that make its titular event worth studying to this day.

It abandons academia for entertainment which, admittedly, it does a very good job of providing. Though audiences may not feel the film’s ideas piercing their brain, they will likely feel the emotional impact of the solid turns from this extraordinary cast. People will no doubt look at “The Stanford Prison Experiment” like people today look at “The Outsiders,” seeing strong performances from rising male actors. If you haven’t already, remember these names – Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, Jack Kilmer, Thomas Mann, Johnny Simmons, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee – because it will not be the last you hear from them.

ExperimenterAlvarez would have done well to lean on the findings from the subject of Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter,” Stanley Milgram. A social psychologist working at Yale in the 1960s, Milgram sought answers to how ordinary German people became complicit in the Nazi machine. In other words, he sought to find in science and data what Hannah Arendt described in theory as “the banality of evil.”

Almereyda’s film puts a heavy emphasis on process, using large chunks of the film’s beginning to detail just how Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) went about obtaining his – pun fully intended – shocking findings. He meticulously devised an experiment in which an unsuspecting person would be asked to administer escalating electric shocks to someone else. No matter the pain that other person seemed to endure, the subject with the power to dole out the shock almost always continued if given the instruction to do so from an authority figure in the room.

Notoriously, Milgram was so horrified by the levels of obedience he found in America that he decided against testing his hypotheses in Germany. He controlled for any number of factors – the proximity of the person receiving the shock, the proximity of the authority figure in the experiment, even removing the subject from the setting of an academic laboratory. He got the same results nearly every time.

As a film, “Experimenter” loses a little luster with its less interesting forays into Milgram’s personal life and some didacticism. Milgram frequently breaks the fourth wall to go deeper into his findings, somewhat similarly to Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.” It starts off weird but eventually becomes normalized. Plus, Almereyda does plenty of showing the experiment that a little bit of telling to make sure no one misses the point feels fine.

But as a work about my other passion, social sciences, “Experimenter” reminds me of what I loved about the discipline. It celebrates the questioning of underlying assumptions we hold about social arrangements and then putting them to the test. I only wish it was around to show in a class or two when I was still in college. Hint to professors: this would make for a great Friday activity!

The Stanford Prison ExperimentB2halfstars
ExperimenterB+3stars

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