In spite of Stanley Milgram being one of the forerunners of modern social psychology, it still seems as though so few outside of his field are aware of his many contributions to the science. Michael Almereyda’s latest film, Experimenter, not only makes up for the ire he invoked in directing the 2000 version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, but also puts a spotlight on a psychologist who doesn’t appear often enough to get his due.
Because a film about an experimenter of Milgram’s caliber wouldn’t be quite right if it wasn’t somewhat experimental itself, Peter Sarsgaard takes on the role in a manner that allows him to speak to the film audience as though he’s already dead, already outside of himself. Moreover, overtly fake-looking antiquated backgrounds add to the surreal quality of the set design, a trait that Michel Gondry would be proud of.
In the early 60s, his preoccupation with an obedience experiment funded by Yale doesn’t prevent him from falling in love with his soon-to-be wife, Alexandra “Sasha” Milgram (Winona Ryder, who, while it’s nice to see in a main character capacity again, is wasted in this role). The two meet in an elevator as they’re going to the same party, and Stanley pursues her tirelessly from there. Both descended from immigrant parents, they share an instant and impenetrable bond. It is, in fact, Milgram’s ties to his Hungarian and Romanian heritage that lead him to conduct the obedience experiments in the wake of the damage wrought by Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
Incited by one of the most important war criminal trials of the time, that of Adolf Eichmann, Milgram was desperate to answer the question posed by many Americans of the time: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?” Milgram’s findings were based on an experiment that led one of the study participants to believe that they were in a “teacher” role, and therefore responsible for administering punishment to the “learner” in the scenario by delivering up to 450 volts of electric shock to the man on the other side, always the same person, James McDonough (Jim Gaffigan). Each time, regardless of the amount of pain expressed by McDonough on the pre-taped recordings, the “teacher” was always compelled to continue with the experiment based on the urgings of the fake doctor Milgram planted in the room.
As Milgram sadly points out, “The results are terrifying and depressing. They suggest that the kind of character produced in American society can’t be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment in response to a malevolent authority.” His despair over findings that indicate there would be nothing present in human nature to prevent yet another Holocaust or other such atrocity from occurring is compounded by the school’s refusal for further funding at the conclusion of the research.
During this time, Milgram was also teaching at Harvard as assistant professor in the Department of Social Relations. At the end of his contract he was denied tenure due to, many believed, the controversy surrounding his research findings during the obedience experiment. Nonetheless, Milgram continued to make his mark on the social psychology field with the small world experiment (now known to most as the six degrees of separation phenomenon) and the familiar stranger concept. What Almereyda leaves out is one of Milgram’s last experiments, the use of Cyranoids, before his premature death of a heart attack in 1984. Although Milgram was never in short supply of new experiments to conduct, it was always the obedience ones that psychologists and civilians alike honed in on. After publishing his book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, in 1974, Milgram went on a talk show to explain to his detractors, “People don’t have the resources to resist authority. That’s what the experiment teaches us. [It] explains a kind of flaw in social thinking. A deadening. A suspension of moral value.”
Almereyda’s thorough script is given a playful rendering by the always inimitable Sarsgaard, who infuses Milgram with a sort of all-knowing sardonic coat of armor that makes it difficult to look away. And, though it is saddening to see his life cut short at one of the many zeniths of his productivity, it is as he says while reading from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, “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.” Milgram made the most of that brief crack of light by shining some of his own onto the rest of humanity.