“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”
As Peter Sarsgaard‘s Stanley Milgram posthumously states at the conclusion of Michael Almereyda‘s Experimenter, his work compiled in Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View continues to come up in conversation whenever a new atrocity occurs in the news. Milgram’s impetus, as explained in one of many fourth wall-breaking instances throughout the film, stemmed from World War II and how seemingly ordinary people became complicit in the murder of millions. What made them ignore their humanity and morality to blindly follow warped figures of authority? It’s a chilling question yet to be answered as we learn today that ISIS was responsible for the deaths of over 120 Parisians last night. Jihadists recruited as suicide bombers to fulfill acts in direct opposition to the religion they believe they’re protecting.
Was Milgram’s experiment to discover “Why?” controversial? Of course. How could its illusory foundation not come under fire when it proved exactly what people don’t wish to believe? It’s easier to condemn the science through heightened emotions and defensiveness than label it truth when doing so admits mankind’s unavoidably universal fallibility. We’d rather demonize the scientist as amoral than admit sixty-five percent of the American population would follow a malevolent force simply because it tells us to do so. We aren’t Nazis. The participants who willfully pushed that button to send shocks into the flesh of a seemingly innocent man explain this phenomenon succinctly by telling us how their spouses reacted to their tales of woe: “You kept going despite his screams? I surely would have stopped.”
Those are easy sentiments to believe having not gone through the experiment. It’s one thing when our minds are free and clear to see the moral conundrum, but when we’re in that room—with a proctor in the position of power egging us on and a victim willfully pulling his sleeve to allow for the electric sensor—all bets are off. Even if you don’t want to keep going, the ability to stand by your convictions and not be deemed an outcast often out weigh what’s “right”. You don’t want to be the person who let the experiment fail because you were soft. But you don’t want to be responsible for another person’s suffering, so you allow the proctor to take the blame. You were his instrument, not your own.
As such, I can totally see the merits of what Milgram did while also finding it to exist in an ethical grey area. It’s important work because it forces us to look inside ourselves and admit we aren’t so far removed from Nazis or ISIS. We simply were conditioned within a totally different society with different goals and different tragedies. But when all is said and done, which actions are a result of nature and which of nurture? Experiments like Milgram’s obedience test are crucial to finding that line if we only allow the scientists the latitude to push the envelope. In this respect he becomes a character before his time—a forward thinker who put science first when the public wasn’t ready to see the darkness within.
This leads me into the film itself: a necessary document into an audacious psychologist’s mind. If the film gets viewers to seek out Milgram’s book, it’s succeeded. Reading the book should be the ultimate goal because the film’s frankly a little too weird to exist as the end-all be-all document of this man. While it nicely shows us the aftermath of the experiment and Milgram’s status in the scientific community at large—as well as follow-up projects more innocuous and optimistic than Obedience to Authority—it becomes clinical and somewhat off-putting in its technical decisions. Similar to a stage play we get the fourth wall-breaking narration and also numerous sets consisting of foreground seating against backlit projections. And the sound design often has score grossly overpowering dialogue.
What this does is make the film into an experiment itself—one I thought would get increasingly worse with the goal of seeing whether I as the viewer would shut it off. I expected the score to get louder and dialogue softer as well as the sets to become more sparse as though Almereyda sought to have me confront what cinema means in comparison to a play or first-hand document recalling Milgram’s own non-fiction movies of himself facing the camera to talk. The idea that the film might be more than just a biopic had me excited, so discovering it wasn’t was a let down. I wanted something more even if it meant grinding action to a halt so Sarsgaard could turn and ask me questions myself.
Beyond that Experimenter is just another biopic following someone we should know around for twenty odd years. There are little things like the love of his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder), support of colleague Paul Hollander (Edoardo Ballerini), and skepticism of his students that prove involving, but none are fully realized. It’s also fascinating to see the revolving door of celebrities in the experiment chair (Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, and Taryn Manning) or out (Kellan Lutz as William Shatner and Dennis Haysbert as Ossie Davis). But these too take us out of the story itself—along with the recurrence of an elephant walking behind Milgram at two different schools. It keeps promising something bigger only to end up rather pedestrian outside its stirring subject material.
Maybe that’s the goal. Maybe Almereyda is testing us to see what anticipation does to our enjoyment of his film. I don’t know. All I can say is that it’s a worthwhile endeavor to learn about Milgram’s motivations and to see the fear an angry hoard can conjure in the aftermath of something disliked. After all, the almost universal backlash he meets condones his results—the public knowing nothing of the actual material besides what scathing reviews in the media tell them. In this respect the media becomes our authority and we side with what is said instead of reading the book ourselves for an intelligent, personal reaction. Perhaps Almereyda is deconstructing his film to shed light on this truth of perception. See it yourself and decide.
 Peter Sarsgaard in EXPERIMENTER, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard in EXPERIMENTER, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Jim Gaffigan in EXPERIMENTER, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.