Nov 06

“Experimenter”: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study

In a college psychology class over 40 years ago I learned about Stanley Milgram, the titular Experimenter of a new film by Michael Almereyda. But I’m hardly unique, of course, in having been introduced to his work. John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “Readers who’ve heard of only one psychology experiment in their lives probably know Milgram’s…”

Some pertinent background: “An American-born Jew of Romanian-Hungarian extraction,” states Scott Foundas, Variety, “Milgram was obsessed by the origins of genocide and the human capacity to rationalize violent behavior…”

Milgram is portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard. Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap, sets up “Experimenter”:

In response to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) set out to study obedience, particularly the willingness of experiment participants to inflict ‘punishment’ on another person simply because the conductor of the experiment instructed them to do so. Milgram’s casual polls of colleagues as well as his students at Yale before the trials began predicted that very few would follow through to the end of the experiment, which involved the person shocking another participant three times with 450 volts.

Turns out they had too much faith in the good of mankind: Out of 40 test subjects, 26 administered every shock as instructed by a man in a gray lab coat (white would be ‘too medical,’ Milgram reasoned), though they all expressed concern about the other participant — who was actually an actor (Jim Gaffigan) and didn’t receive any shocks at all — and displayed physical signs of stress and emotional upset.

Some of the film’s other eventualities, says Foundas, include “…his overnight celebrity, the ensuing accusations of ethical impropriety, and the general unwillingness of people to believe what Milgram was saying: that most people, relieved of direct responsibility for their own actions, might be capable of almost any atrocity.”

Other Research and Film Conclusions 

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

As he ages and suffers through countless shallow readings of his work, Milgram takes to pointing out a chapter of his book few people got around to. There he defines the ‘agentic state,’ in which a person sees his role in an interaction as not human but purely functional. ‘That’s store policy,’ such a person might say, or ‘that’s out of my control.’ Spend a couple of hours trying to get satisfaction on a company’s toll-free ‘customer service’ line, and you might conclude that a version of Milgram’s famous experiment is still being conducted on a massive scale.

David Edelstein, Vulture: “The movie ends with Milgram asserting we can be puppets but still have free will — which would be even freer if we could learn to ‘see the strings’ on us.”

The trailer for Experimenter shows many of the other players. Besides Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife, a few of the research participants are Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, and Taryn Manning.

Selected Reviews

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “In ‘Experimenter,’ an aesthetically and intellectually playful portrait of the social psychologist Stanley Milgram, the director…turns a biopic into a mind game. It’s an appropriate take on a figure who’s best remembered for his experiments in which subjects delivered punishing electric shocks on command.”

Godfrey Cheshire, “…(I)f this is a biopic, it’s hardly a conventional one. It seems not at all interested in probing Milgram’s psychology, to wonder why he would undertake this type of work. And, in effect, the film’s wife-and-family parts have a basically negative function in that, rather than explaining anything, simply tell us he was a fairly ordinary guy.”

Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap(A) largely engrossing sit, even during an unfortunate moment when Sarsgaard sings and the film threatens to become a musical. But as interesting as the developments are, they’re too inscrutable to stay with you for very long.”