Experimenter, The: Michael Almereyda on Social Pyschologist Stanley Milgram and his Obedience Experiments

The Experimenter, the latest film from writer-director Michael Almereyda, a pioneer of the new American independent cinema, is modest to a fault.

The film’s subject, social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conducted the controversial “obedience experiments” at Yale University in the early 1960s, is intriguing, but he and his motivations remain an enigma in this treatment, which is too narrow and tentative considering its potentially inflammatory issues.

World premiering at the 2015 New York Film Festival, the film is released by Magnolia but I doubt of many viewers will see it in theaters.

The tale begins well by offering some personal and social background of Milgram (well played by Peter Sarsgaard), his whirring, inquisitive mind, and restless persona, which led to his investigations.

The experiments that Milgram conducted observed the responses of ordinary people when asked to send harmful electrical shocks to a stranger. Despite pleadings from the persons subjected to shock, most (65 percent) of subjects obeyed commands from a lab-coated authority figure to deliver potentially fatal currents.

This is 1961, and in the background, we see the Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel airing in living rooms across America, a reminder of totalitarianism and its devastating effects.

When Milgram published his results, he was accused by many of being a deceptive and manipulative monster. But make no mistake, the movie’s detailed depiction of humans’ capacity for cruelty is deeply unsettling, making it essential viewing and a useful starting point for discussion.

 Refusing to obey formal strategies, by mixing the conventions of a fictional and non-fictional work, Almereyda has created an intriguing, but not entirely satisfying film, one that raises more questions than it can possibly answer within its narrowly conceived frame.  Sharply uneven, in moments, The Experimenter is bold and audacious, and in others—especially in covering the marriage of Milgram and Sasha Menkin (Winona Ryder), too tame and superficial.

Here is a film whose scope is too limited, whose running time is too short (only 90 minutes) to cover the intellectual, psychological, political, and emotional aspects of the work of one of the most (in)famous scientist-scholar of the twentieth century.