Isn't It Shocking?

The new movie Experimenter, about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, makes the ethical questions concerning the deception and mistreatment of research participants much more tangible and pressing, says Scott McLemee.

October 28, 2015

Experimenter, with Peter Sarsgaard in the title role of Stanley Milgram, isn’t perfect -- and we’ll consider some of the problems shortly. But it is an ambitious and thoughtful film that incorporates more of the social psychologist’s work than his famous -- or notorious -- research on obedience. Some of his experiments might even be approved by an institutional review board these days, and in at least one case his work led to a result that has passed into wide circulation: the six degrees of separation principle. That was Milgram’s idea. Kevin Bacon had nothing to do with it.

Michael Almereyda, the writer and director of the film, seems restless with the conventions of the Hollywood biopic. He satisfies them (we see Milgram meet his wife-to-be, get denied tenure and survive a couple of rounds of mass-media attention) while also playing with and undercutting the genre’s default mode of historical realism. A discussion may be acted out in front of what’s obviously a projected backdrop; when ethical issues become the proverbial elephant in the room, there is sometimes an elephant in the room. Lots of scenes may be indistinguishable in style from any other docudrama, but then followed by something that foregrounds the performed and filmed nature of what we’re seeing -- giving the audience an occasional zap to jolt it out of passively absorbing what’s being shown.

Milgram’s obedience study is such a staple of introductory psychology courses that going over it again should be unnecessary. Even people who’ve never cracked the relevant textbooks often hear about his work from discussions of Abu Ghraib or other examples of malevolent conformity. The trailer for the film covers the basics quickly:

Experimenter’s opening scene is an almost word-for-word re-enactment of footage from Obedience, Milgram’s own short film from 1965, released as part of a Pennsylvania State University series on the behavioral sciences. The main difference between the sequences -- apart from cinematography -- is that Experimenter soon joins Sarsgaard as Milgram behind the two-way mirror through which he observes the action. In commenting on it, he covers many points of information and interpretation presented in the old educational film through Milgram’s voice-over. But Experimenter does not simply put the disembodied monologue into the mouth of someone on-screen: the actor playing Milgram suddenly turns to address the viewer directly. His explanation, and even the experiment itself, cease to take place in 1962 and instead become immediate and contemporary, and almost jarringly personal.

By now we’ve all seen enough films in which someone pauses to speak into the camera that the technique no longer seems especially striking, in itself. But it proves unusually effective in this case, I think, because of how Experimenter depicts the research subjects. Textbooks normally stress the high rates of compliance with authority shown in the experiments: the takeaway (in today’s parlance) is that up to 65 percent of subjects were willing to obey what were, in effect, orders to commit torture.

But Experimenter lingers over something quickly lost in the statistics: the considerable strain and misgivings of the subjects as they hesitate and argue with the researcher’s orders to continue delivering shocks. We see that in Milgram’s documentary as well. But Almereyda brings the camera (and the viewer) in closer than Milgram did, giving greater intimacy to the anguish and revulsion expressed by the subjects. Their obedience is anything but robotic; the qualms and resistance make their capitulation much more troubling.

The combined effect of Experimenter is to interrupt one’s passive, self-forgetful absorption in the film as historical drama while heightening vicarious identification with the experimental subjects onscreen. Watching it makes much more tangible and pressing the ethical questions raised by the experiment -- and about the experiment, which increased concerns about deception and mistreatment of research participants. And its attention to Milgram’s lesser-known projects -- the lost-letter experiment, for one -- helps frame the obedience study as an example of a focused, relatively small-scale empirical study. (Not the grist for too many biopics, after all.)

As for problems with the film, some are inseparable from controversies over Milgram’s study itself, which are numerous and ongoing more than 30 years since his death. One in particular requires pointing out. The film stresses the important coincidence that Milgram’s project overlapped in time with the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who repeatedly insisted that in carrying out genocide he was “just following orders” as a cog in the Nazi machine. Milgram’s laboratory research seemed to prove the deep disposition of ordinary people to accept and follow the dictates of an authority in uniform. The implications were more than worrisome. “If a system of death camps were set up in the United States,” he said in an interview from 1979, “one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any midsized American town.”

Maybe yes, maybe no. But the notion of Eichmann as an indifferent, gray, bureaucratic nobody who might just as well have ended up managing a post office branch but instead oversaw the extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe -- this interpretation, associated with Hannah Arendt and taking the “just following orders” plea at face value, does not hold up in light of evidence that he was a full-fledged true believer in the Nazi cause.

A lot more is involved in the human penchant for atrocity than a disposition to yield to authority. At the same time, the film sticks with the figure of 65 percent of Milgram’s subjects revealing that disposition. The last five minutes of his film from 1965 make clear that the percentage of those going along with the order to shock another person varied widely, depending on the exact design of the experiment -- raising the possibility that opposition to malevolent authority might be just as important a tendency as the one to acquiesce. I wish Experimenter had found a way to point that out. It seems like a thought worth provoking.


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