Magnolia Pictures and director/writer Michael Almereyda bring to the screen a story of human willingness when working with the Experimenter.
Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) is an Associate Professor at Yale University in 1961 bringing an experiment that tests what human beings are willing and capable of doing. Two people are chosen to be a Teacher and Learner who is James McDonough (Jim Gaffigan), the Teacher asks questions and when the answers are wrong, the Learner administers a shock. With each wrong answer the voltage goes up.
When the experiment is over, the Teacher-subjects learn more about themselves than they ever expected. When wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) learns of the experiment, she invests in learning why it is being done and stands by her husbands’ research. Working with Paul Hollander (Edoardo Ballerini), they both see the work as needing to go forward.
Trying to expand his research, Milgram runs into resistance from colleagues who do not understand what he is trying to accomplish. The family moves from Cambridge to New York where Milgram becomes a Professor, settles into a routine writing the book “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.”
Trying to continue to spread the word about the work, his book is put into a television where Milgram tries to once again defend his work. It is an era of fear with a man who tries to understand it all.
Sarsgaard as Milgram is intense, no nonsense and curious all wrapped up into a tight little nervous bundle. Throughout the entire film he seems to be having a conversation with himself and the viewer sharing his thought process. Normally I don’t prefer that style but I found myself drawn in by everything he had to say. I suppose you could say the viewer who follows could also be a tad manipulated – very well done.
Ryder’s role is more quietly supportive. Once the character understands what it is Milgram is trying to prove, it’s short sentences throughout the film and child bearing. Gaffigan as McDonough is well played sir! Trust me, that’s all you need to know. Ballerini as Hollander is another quiet supporter of Milgram.
The film also includes cameos by Taryn Manning as Mrs. Lowe, Anton Yelchin as Rensaleer, John Leguizamo as Taylor, Lori Singer as Florence Asch, Anthony Edwards as Miller, Dennis Haysbert as Ossie Davis and Kellan Lutz as William Shatner.
TUBS OF POPCORN: I give “Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story” four tubs of popcorn out of five. This is such an intense look at what human beings can do and why they do it. I felt a fond remembrance of college where enjoying the psychology and sociological aspects of Milgram’s human studies.
Watching the film I was stunned to remember when I was young being told by my Grandfather that if I looked up at the ceiling during a church sermon – eventually others will as well. So of course I had to test this and it was true! So now I have to wonder if my Grandfather read about Milgram’s experiment!
That is just one reason I found this film intriguing but will also admit I can see this not being everyone’s cup of tea. Peter Sarsgaard has the weight put squarely on his shoulders to carry dialogue, explanation and even elephants following him. I actually enjoyed his running monologues because it sincerely kept me interested.
With the backdrop of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, it is clear that some believe that Milgram’s experiments were nothing short of human torture. From the moment that idea came to the screen I thought the characters who were offended by the experiment are the same people who can not fathom what they participated in.
I have to say the scene with Shatner and Davis confronting Milgram is so well done. There is such pressure between the three characters in the mock laboratory as each contemplate one another’s view of what the two actors are portraying.
In the end — sometimes we can not rid ourselves of what we condemn!