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October 23, 2015

Since I’ve been writing these reviews, probably the most conflicted I’ve ever been about a movie was Compliance. I might not go as harshly on it now as I did right after watching it, but it was a meticulous and well-rendered depiction of a subject that I found incredibly disturbing. The opening sequence of Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter have a similar, if milder effect.

We see a grey-coated man lead two other men into a room. He thanks them for volunteering for this experiment, and gives them their gratuity up front, assuring them that it’s theirs to keep no matter what happens. He explains that they’ll be testing the effects of negative reinforcement on learning, and they draw lots to see who will be the teacher and who will be the learner. They are both led into the next room, where the learner’s arm is placed into a shock cuff. He explains that he has a heart condition, but the scientist assures them that the shocks, though painful, will leave no permanent tissue damage. He brings the teacher back out into the first room, and allows him to feel a sample 45-volt shock. Then the teacher conducts an exercise with the learner, subjecting him to greater and greater shocks for incorrect answers, up to a maximum of 450 volts.

On the other side of the one-way mirror, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) explains to us that the “learner” is actually in on the whole thing. This is the infamous Milgram experiment; the actual question is whether the teacher will continue inflicting the shocks despite the learner’s screams of protest, just because the scientist says he has to. And, in about 65% of the cases, they go all the way up to the top.

Unlike the recent re-enactment of The Stanford Prison Experiment, Almereyda doesn’t seek to absolve Milgram of his sins. Many of the subjects were under immense psychological stresses, though they were judged a year later to have suffered no long-lasting effects. On the other hand, Milgram was indeed onto something: the “agentic” state, where people are willing to submit their own wills to that of an authority figure who assures them they are only doing what is necessary. Besides, Milgram adhered far more closely to his predefined experimental protocols than Zimbardo did. Almereyda’s script could have made clearer the precise nature of the problems — not the balancing of harm to subjects against the prospective gain, but the lack of oversight by an independent board of ethics — but the fact that it even mentions the ethical problems is a big step.

The film is hardly restricted to just that one experiment, however. Milgram explored his ideas about authority and obedience in myriad ways, some as simple as “seeding” a crowd by having someone stand on a corner and stare upwards at a fixed but unremarkable point. Seeing this behavior, passersby tend to stop and look themselves, and the more seeds there are the larger the resulting crowd, all looking at nothing.

Almost all of Milgram’s experiments involved some amount of deception or illusion, to the extent that when he came into his classroom and announced that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, his students were certain it was a put-on. Even turning on a radio was no help; they assumed he’d arranged a fake broadcast, like War of the Worlds.

Almereyda picks up this theme of illusion and runs with it, breaking the fourth wall at every opportunity. He shoots a meeting with Milgram’s former advisor using a 1940s-era back-projection, highlighting the artifice. But then so many other shots after that start to look questionable. Is Sarsgaard really standing in that lobby, addressing the camera on an upper level while people walk around behind him? Or was that just B-roll matted in behind him? We start looking for the seams — the matte lines, or the slight mismatches of lighting and focus between foreground and background.

Seeing the filmmaker’s craft pointed out reminds us that, like any biopic, this is less the story of Milgram’s life than a story Almereyda chooses to tell us about Milgram’s work. And, as fascinating as the story is, it can never be the whole story. It reminds us to always look behind what we see on screen, always as playfully as Milgram himself might have.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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