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Yale University, 1961. Stanley Milgram designs a psychology experiment that still resonates to this day, in which people think they’re delivering painful electric shocks to an affable stranger strapped into a chair in another room. Despite his pleads for mercy, the majority of subjects don’t stop the experiment, administering what they think is a near-fatal electric shock, simply because they’ve been told to do so. With Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial airing in living rooms across America, Milgram strikes a nerve in popular culture and the scientific community with his exploration into people’s tendency to comply with authority. Celebrated in some circles, he is also accused of being a deceptive, manipulative monster, but his wife Sasha stands by him through it all.

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Experimenter movie full length review - Interesting, if Odd, Piece on Famed Psychologist Stanley Milgram

I have loved psychology since high school and often wish I had pursued a career in the field, but I didn't so I have to get my fix elsewhere.

We were lucky to have received two movies focused on the subject of famous psychological experiments last year (EXPERIMENTER and THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT) and, while I was more interested in a dramatization of the Stanford experiment, my local stores only carried the other. EXPERIMENTER is a strange little docudrama that details the work of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), most prominently his experiment on obedience. For those unfamiliar, the subject of the experiment would act as the "teacher" and ask a series of memory questions to the "student". Interacting in separate rooms via a one-way intercom, the teacher would be commanded to shock the student with increasing voltage for every wrong answer until the student (a member of Milgram's team) is heard grunting in pain, demanding the experiment be halted, and eventually goes silent. Milgram's goal was to see how many people would continue the experiment knowing they are causing pain to an innocent subject and how far people would allow the voltage to climb before refusing to continue. The results of his experiment were considered shocking and the whole event remains controversial; EXPERIMENTER delves into Milgram's views on the importance of the results, the question of whether his experiment was ethically sound, and how this one experiment continued to resonate throughout his career until his eventual death late in 1984.

EXPERIMENTER is a film for a niche audience and I can see most people either bored or put off by director Michael Almereyda's creative choices. Psychology is a hard topic to make too exciting. Interesting, sure, but not exciting. The most drama you find in the film comes from the negative reactions to Milgram's experiment. We're treated to a trio of women being given the chance to confront Milgram after the fact where they can voice the psychological concerns of participants deceived into thinking they are harming another human being, and we see Milgram lose out on tenure at Harvard because the professional world didn't respond much better to what his experiment said on human nature. For me, all that was the interesting stuff. About halfway through the movie, we shift gears to focus on some of Milgram's other, less controversial experiments. It's all mildly interesting and serves to show that Milgram wasn't completely about exposing mankind's less popular features but I was hoping we'd get more drama from the obedience experiment and the aftermath. I suppose there might not have been enough material for such interesting dramatic piece and maybe we got a glimpse at the worst of it. We did get a fun visit with Milgram to the set of the TV movie "The Tenth Level" where William Shatner (Kellan Lutz) and Ossie Davis (Dennis Haysbert) are recreating the experiment in true '70s cheese fashion. It's all somewhat intriguing but the movie does lose a lot of steam.

Apparently some elements of Almereyda's film were met with laughter when touring the festival circuit. You see, he's incorporated some weird visual elements that feel completely out of place. It all starts when we see Milgram's first monologue to the audience as he walks down the hall outside his experiment room, and an elephant comes around the corner and shambles up behind him. I assume it's some "elephant in the room" visual metaphor but I honestly didn't know what it was meant to tell me. It seemed to me that the character of Milgram was completely frank with the audience (and everyone in the film) and that there weren't any issues left unaddressed. Then we have bizarre uses of background projection (not just for driving scenes?an entire afternoon tea scene is set in front of a weird background projection) and a distractingly bad false beard Milgram acquires when we reach the late 70's or so. Why go weird? Why not play this as a straight drama? It started feeling like we were watching an odd stage play. A stage play with an admirable cast though. Sarsgaard does a fine job as MIlgram and we've got Winona Ryder as his wife Sasha. Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a minor role as the "student" in Milgram's team and his subjects have a steady stream of cool cameos including John Leguizamo and Anton Yelchin. As inexplicably strange as the movie is and despite the lull in the middle, EXPERIMENTER has enough positive notes to make it well worth a view for anyone interested in the subject matter.