In a muddled sea of subpar biographical films, Michael Almereyda’s ‘Experimenter’ successfully separates itself from the pack with a mixture of surreal and playful ideas that breathes life into the mundane world of academia. Experimenter concerns the world-renowned social psychologist Stanley Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard) and his most famous work (if not the most famous social experiment in history), the Milgram experiment. Over the cause of the film, Almereyda returns time and time again to the Milgram experiment allowing us to view Milgram in a unique way.
For those unaware, the 1961 Milgram experiment measured the willingness of an individual to obey an authority figure that instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience, specifically, giving another individual increasingly strong electric shocks when they fail a task. Milgram found that most people would obey even when they witnessed the serious distress and injury that their actions caused. This was then published in Milgram’s book, ‘Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View’. The book catapulted Milgram into the public eye and would cement him as one the most important figures in social psychology.
Almereyda paints Milgram as someone who’s personal and professional life is overshadowed by his crowning achievement. The film postulates that Milgram will be forever known best for the Milgram experiments, depicting him as a slightly doomed character. The film doesn’t dwell on this perhaps because the actual Milgram would find this situation so bizarre and funny.
Sarsgaard’s body of work is so rife with villainous and slightly deranged characters that it lends his portrayal of the otherwise calm and calculated Milgram a menacing edge. It should be said that Milgram isn’t an intrinsically menacing character, rather, it is the casting of Sargaard that gives the character a dangerous glint in his eye. One would be forgiven for assuming Milgram might snap at any point during the film. It is a welcome addition as, at times, the film seems reluctant to really examine Milgram and leaves one with a feeling of apathy towards the man.
However, Almereyda’s use of playful and imaginative filmmaking gives the project a cinematic quality to something that could easily be adapted for the stage. The film is narrated by the fourth wall breaking Milgram, who walks the audience through his social experiments, his relationship with his wife Alexandra Milgram (Winona Ryder) and the effect his experiments have had on his own life (at one point Milgram breaks the news that JFK has been assassinated to his students, they dismiss it out of hand assuming it is yet another social experiment).
When confronted with the dilemma of deception inherent to the experiments, for better or worse, the filmmakers allow the audience to decide whether these acts were immoral or unethical. Experimenter is a film about the power of authority, obedience and rules, and yet is somehow celebratory. Overall, this is a biopic that is worthy of your time and its name. It gives us an understanding of the experiments and Stanley Milgram’s reasoning for conducting them, and it also shows us why his work is still relevant today.
The Experimenter is available to buy on DVD and as a digital download now.