A terrific movie that most folks will never actually see!

by Martin Hafer

2015 was a very unusual year because two different movies debuted that were about famous (or perhaps infamous) studies that are discussed in practically every introductory psychology textbook published over the last three decades. After all, it’s not like there is a huge demand for this sort of thing and the market for such films is pretty limited. While I was not particularly impressed by The Stanford Prison Experiment, Experimenter is simply terrific and I was shocked by the wonderful writing and direction by Michael Almereyda. In fact, it’s so good and the style is so amazing that I think most everyone could enjoy and appreciate the film…if they end up seeing it, which isn’t very likely.

I have a greater interest in this sort of film than most people because I taught psychology and used to be a psychotherapist. When I taught, I frequently talked about the ethics or ethical lapses of the Zimbardo Prison Study as well as the Milgram Obedience Study. But, as I said above, the way Almereyda wrote and designed the film make it a film for anyone…not just geeky ex-psychology teachers!

Experimenter begins with a graphic depiction of Milgram’s classic study. I was very surprised at the choice of actors, as Anthony Edwards (E.R.) and the stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan played subjects in this experiment…and they both were excellent. In Milgram’s experiment of the early 60s, there were two subjects–one a real subject (Edwards) and another who pretended to be one but who was actually working for the experimenter (Gaffigan). The study was supposedly about learning methods and one subject was chosen to be the ‘educator’ and the other the ‘subject’–but this was rigged and the real subject was always the educator. The educator’s job was to read questions over a loud speaker to the subject in the next room. If the subject missed a question, the educator was instructed to administer an electric shock–and the intensity of the shocks increased throughout the experiment. The subject followed a script in which he eventually begins to complain about the pain of the shocks and even say that he wants to stop….yet the psychologist there in the room with the educator encourages them to continue. Amazingly, despite educators thinking they were causing significant pain, about 65% of them went all the way…even shocking the subject AFTER they stopped responding altogether!!

Directed by
Michael Almereyda
Winona Ryder, Taryn Manning, Kellan Lutz
Release Date
16 October 2015
Martin’s Grade: A+

The experiment’s true purpose was to demonstrate that the same sort of blind obedience to authority that the Nazis showed in the death camps and their willingness to follow rules still exists in societies today. Many praised his insightful and brilliant study, but many also criticized its methodology and thought the study was very unethical. This was also true in the Stanford Prison Experiment–yet, oddly, that film never really addressed concerns about ethics–which is why I found that film so disappointing.

Fortunately, Experimenter did present both sides of the debate as well looked at Dr. Milgram as a person–something I never expected. To do this, they obtained the cooperation of the Milgram family t learn about the man. In fact, you can see the Professor’s widow and brother interviewed on the special features on the DVD and they seemed very happy with the film. This is interesting because Stanley Milgram is very flawed in the movie. He’s sometimes arrogant and smug and Almereyda did something very smart to help accentuate this. He had the actor playing Milgram, Peter Sarsgaard, occasionally turn to the camera and talk to the audience. This could have been awkward but really worked well in conveying Milgram’s personality as well as giving a much fuller story about the man and his life beyond his seminal study.

You learn about some other brilliant work he did at Yale, Harvard and the City University of New York…as well as the continued criticism he received during his career and its impact on him. Overall, this is a magnificently written and directed film with some wonderful acting that really needs to be seen by a wider audience. The film barely got noticed in the theaters but now that the film is out on DVD with Netflix this week, there’s a chance for you to see a wonderfully crafted and engaging picture. Trust me on this one…you don’t need to be a psyc major to enjoy this film!