Experimenter

*****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Based on the true story of famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who in 1961 conducted a series of radical behaviour experiments that tested ordinary humans' willingness to obey authority by using electric shock. We follow Milgram from meeting his wife through his controversial experiments that sparked public outcry.
"Almereyda jumps straight into the experiment which, over half a century later, is as fascinating and timely and important as ever."

"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." The first line of Vladimir Nabokov's sublime autobiography, Speak, Memory, is read directly to us, the audience, by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, as played wisely by Peter Sarsgaard in Michael Almereyda's thrilling Experimenter, screening in this year's New York Film Festival.

The "first" beginning drops us off at Yale in August 1961, where Milgram's famous experiment on obedience took place. Two subjects are assigned roles, one as "Teacher" and one as "Learner." It is a study of "reward and punishment", they are told, the latter consisting of electric shocks in mounting strength, given to the "Learner" if his memory of word pairing fails him, and he gives the wrong answer to multiple choice questions. The first study included only males. 65% administered the shocks up to maximum levels.

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Almereyda jumps straight into the experiment which, over half a century later, is as fascinating and timely and important as ever. The original staging details were already cinematic in nature. Sarsgaard's silky Milgram voice-over lets us in that they decided to "make the lab coat grey" for the person explaining the procedure, because a white one would look "too medical." In a later scene that reconstructs the teleplay made about the experiment, starring William Shatner (here played by Kellan Lutz) as Milgram, the coat colour isn't the only detail that is altered.

The second start, where "it really begins" and Sarsgaard, equally poker-faced and tongue-in-cheek, brings us fully into the room, boldly confronts us with what is at stake. The "Teachers", the only ones not in on the experiment, show themselves as, one by one, they administer (nonexistent) shocks to a person in the other room, who begs for them to stop. 120 volts, 135 volts, 150 volts, on to 450 volts. A wrong answer and the next button is pressed. We watch with Milgram from behind the frame of a two-way mirror how one of the subjects "finds a groove", how they turn around with fleeting pleas to the "authority" in the lab coat to let them off the hook, then continue anyway.

Jim McDonough (Jim Gaffigan), father of nine and with a heart condition, who plays the original fake "Learner", is the first person in Experimenter to sing Some Enchanted Evening, the tune that haunts the movie. At the airport terminal on a trip to Paris and - in classic Hollywood musical tradition - as the grand finale on the streets of New York, where the living and the dead tend to stroll side by side, you will hear it again and again. "Fools give you reasons, wise men never try."

In tune with Milgram's playful spirit, the actors have been cast because of their varying familiarity as the subjects. There is the well-known face of John Leguizamo, questioned after he went all the way with the "Learner" for mis-matching the words "wet duck" and "brave woman". "Why did you listen to that man and not the man in pain? Who bore the responsibility that this man was being shocked?" Milgram wants to know.

Another "Teacher" is played by Tom Farrell, who continues "with robotic impassivity." Each time he presses the button, "his lips draw back and he bares his teeth." Farrell's face could, possibly, for you, be that of a familiar stranger, someone you've seen in Wim Wenders' Until The End Of The World, sitting at a bar in Berlin, or maybe on a bridge in Paris, Texas, or chatting with Nicholas Ray on camera.

The elephant in the room - and Almereyda takes that proverb hilariously non-figuratively, with a beautiful elephant, credited as Minnie in the end credits, trotting behind Milgram down the corridor - is, of course, how the results of this study shine a dim light for the future, especially considering the then very recent past. The experiments ended in May 1962. Four days later, Adolf Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem. Genocide and the capability of people to disconnect so easily from their own actions never leave the core. The name Milgram is Hebrew for pomegranate, "one of the seven fruits of the Bible" he explains. Could it be the one that caused the fall from grace?

Poignant vignettes illustrate Milgram's private life. He meets his wife, Sasha (Winona Ryder's reactions convey splendour and surprise), in an elevator - "I teach social relations. I study the way people talk in elevators." The shortcuts taken are witty and smart and never come across as heavy-handed. He talks about his "daughter who is yet to be born," and knows the time of his death, because this is cinema and anything goes. By so freely utilising all that the medium allows, it makes us acutely aware of the shackles so many filmmakers put themselves in. In obedience to whom, we may ask? Which eminence in a grey coat is the authority on the blockbuster and denies the killer charm of a rear projection in black and white? Why listen to him?

Bertolt Brecht formed an entire theory on the benefits of knocking down illusions, Alfred Hitchcock loved the effects of a painted backdrop, and Søren Kierkegaard had some insight into the diegetic time continuum and is quoted twice [the second time by the postman] in Experimenter with the following discernment: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

A visit to Milgram's former professor, social psychology pioneer Solomon Asch (Ned Eisenberg), for tea, turns to a discussion of group pressure and conformity, while his wife, Florence Asch (Lori Singer) cradles their dog in her arms as if it were a furry baby. Fast forwarding through Jaguar shopping and denied tenure, the studies following the controversial obedience experiments are not overlooked, as we swoop on while Milgram grows his trademark beard. The "small world" theory explaining how closely we are all linked, the "familiar stranger" we encounter again and again without speaking, and the effect of the camera that "actively attracts the people it records" never managed to overshadow his findings on the "agentic state".

Experimenter has its side effects. It might make you want to read (or re-read) Milgram's 1975 National Book Award-nominated Obedience To Authority: An Experimental View. You may be tempted to face backwards in an elevator or join the fight to protect elephants and ban the ivory trade. It will make you more aware of yourself and your surroundings, which is the most dangerous side effect of them all.

Mingling the performing arts with science and each other, Experimenter is a fantastically thought-provoking and entertaining inquiry into the human condition.

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 2015
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A drama about the life of Stanley Milgram and his famous experiments on obedience.


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