'Experimenter' Revisits A Decades-Old Trial Of Free Will And Compassion

Oct 23, 2015

Michael Almereyda's movie, Experimenter, revisits a controversial 1961 social science experiment, which explored whether volunteer subjects would press a button and shock other volunteers if so ordered.

Experimenter centers on Stanley Milgram, the social scientist best known for his 1961 study at Yale on the nature of obedience. It works terrifically onscreen. We see Milgram, played by Peter Sarsgaard, and his assistants direct their subjects — who are told to think of themselves as "teachers" — ask questions to a so-called "learner" in the next room and press a button delivering an electric shock when the answer is wrong.

As that guy in the next room yelps in pain and begs to stop, a lab-coated overseer commands the "teacher" to disregard the cries and, in the majority of cases, the "teacher" does just that — often visibly anguished but compliant nonetheless.

It's a fake-out. The "learner" is an actor, here played by the likably whiny comedian Jim Gaffigan, but before revealing the hoax, we see Sarsgaard's Milgram coolly question a subject, played by a poignantly stricken John Leguizamo.

Sarsgaard is an edgy, enigmatic actor, and the way he probes Leguizamo, you wonder if Milgram is a sadist, if he likes making people writhe. That's what some colleagues and newspaper editorialists wonder, too, when Milgram's study is published. Was he unethical in how he traumatized his subjects? And does he mean to say humans have no conscience? The controversy keeps him from getting tenure at Harvard and dogs him for life.

Director Michael Almereyda presents a more sympathetic view. Milgram, who was Jewish, brought fierce moral urgency to the problem of why, during the Holocaust, Germans — among others — obeyed so readily what he called "malevolent authority." But he didn't believe people were inherently indifferent to others' suffering. In one scene, an immigrant from the Netherlands angrily quits the experiment because, Milgram theorizes, the man came from a culture with a, quote, "history of defiance."

Experimenter is itself experimental. Now and then Sarsgaard looks into the camera and talks to us. He narrates snippets of historical footage. He puts his work in a social context. He smiles at his ingenuity as a master of stagecraft, a trickster not unlike the people who made the TV show Candid Camera — which Milgram is shown watching for confirmation of his theories on conformity.

Some scenes take place against gorgeous tinted photographs of train stations and Ivy League university buildings. The movie even satirizes movies once in a scene in which Milgram watches actors play him and a colleague in a terrible TV dramatization. In another scene, Milgram walks down a busy corridor, talking to the camera, while an elephant follows behind. I have no idea why — I wonder if Almereyda is mischievously goofing on the audience's acceptance of the filmmaker's authority. Huh, an elephant, okay.

I'll ask him sometime. I've known Almereyda for 35 years — we were in college together — and though I try to be objective about his work, I've never stopped admiring his capacity to keep experimenting, with small budgets, usually in the face of box-office indifference. I especially love his modern-day Manhattan Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, which, despite textual cuts does right by Shakespeare — and also goes on to explore what individual action means in a corporate-media-saturated state.

Weird as it is, Experimenter is the closest he has come to a crowd-pleaser. Sarsgaard has a delightful partner in Winona Ryder as Milgram's wife, a co-adventurer. And while the film is more diffuse in the second half, it's fun to watch Milgram — through the '70s into the '80s — continue to muse on how suggestible people are.

But if we can be puppets, he says, we also have free will. The trick is to be able to "see the strings" on us. Experimenter helps us see those strings, as moviegoers and humans.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. One of the most controversial social science experiments was done more than 50 years ago, exploring whether volunteer subjects would obey orders to press a button that they were told would administer electric shocks to other volunteers. That story is dramatized in the new movie "Experimenter," directed by Michael Almereyda and starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and Jim Gaffigan. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Experimenter" centers on Stanley Milgram, the social scientist best-known for his 1961 study at Yale on the nature of obedience. It works to terrifically on screen. We see Milgram, played by Peter Sarsgaard, and his assistants direct their subjects, who are told to think of themselves as teachers, ask questions to a so-called learner in the next room and press a button delivering an electric shock when the answer is wrong.

As that guy in the next room yelps in pain and begs to stop, a lab-coated overseer commands the teacher to disregard the cries. And in the majority of cases, the teacher does just that, often visibly anguished but compliant nonetheless. It's a fake-out. The learner is an actor, here played by the likably whiny comedian Jim Gaffigan. But before revealing the hoax, Sarsgaard's Milgram coolly questions a subject, played by a poignantly stricken John Leguizamo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EXPERIMENTER")

PETER SARSGAARD: (As Stanley Milgram) Why did you give him - the man in the other room, the learner - the shocks?

JOHN LEGUIZAMO: (As Taylor) Well, as you could see, I wanted to stop 'cause each time you gave him a shock, the guy hollered.

SARSGAARD: (As Stanley Milgram) Did it sound as if he was in pain?

LEGUIZAMO: (As Taylor) Yeah.

SARSGAARD: (As Stanley Milgram) Did he say he wanted you to stop the experiment?

LEGUIZAMO: (As Taylor) Yes.

SARSGAARD: (As Stanley Milgram) Did he have a right to stop the experiment?

LEGUIZAMO: (As Taylor) I don't know.

SARSGAARD: (As Stanley Milgram) Why didn't you stop at that point, when he asked you to stop?

LEGUIZAMO: (As Taylor) Why didn't I stop? Well, because - because he told me to continue.

SARSGAARD: (As Stanley Milgram) Why did you listen to that man and not the man in pain?

LEGUIZAMO: (As Taylor) Well, because I thought the experiment depended on me... And nobody told me to stop.

SARSGAARD: (As Stanley Milgram) He asked you to stop.

LEGUIZAMO: (As Taylor) That's true, but he's the, you know, the subject, shall we say?

SARSGAARD: (As Stanley Milgram) Who was the - who bore the responsibility for the fact that this man was being shocked?

LEGUIZAMO: (As Taylor) I don't know.

EDELSTEIN: Sarsgaard is an edgy, enigmatic actor. And the way he probes Leguizamo, you wonder if Milgram is a sadist, if he likes making people writhe. That's what some colleagues and newspaper editorialists wonder, too, when Milgram's study is published. Was he unethical in how he traumatized his subjects? And does he mean to say humans have no conscience? The controversy keeps him from getting tenure at Harvard and dogs him for life.

Director Michael Almereyda presents a more sympathetic view. Milgram, who was Jewish, brought fierce moral urgency to the problem of why, during the Holocaust, Germans, among others, obeyed so readily what he called malevolent authority. But he didn't believe people were inherently indifferent to others' suffering. In one scene, an immigrant from the Netherlands angrily quits the experiment because Milgram theorizes the man came from a culture with a, quote, "history of defiance."

"Experimenter" is itself experimental. Now and then, Sarsgaard looks into the camera and talks to us. He narrates snippets of historical footage. He puts his work in a social context. He smiles at his ingenuity as a master of stagecraft, a trickster, not that unlike the people who made the TV show, "Candid Camera," which Milgram is shown watching for confirmation of his theories on conformity. Some scenes take place against gorgeous, tinted photographs of train stations and Ivy League university buildings. The movie even satirizes movies once, in a scene in which Milgram watches actors play him and a colleague in a terrible TV dramatization. In another scene, Milgram walks down a busy corridor talking to the camera while an elephant follows behind. I have no idea why.

I wonder if Almereyda is mischievously goofing on the audience's acceptance of the filmmaker's authority. Huh, an elephant, OK. I'll ask him sometime. I've known Almereyda for 35 years. We were in college together. And though I try to be objective about his work, I've never stopped admiring his capacity to keep experimenting with small budgets, usually in the face of box office indifference. I especially love his modern-day Manhattan "Hamlet" with Ethan Hawke, which, despite textual cuts, does right by Shakespeare, as well as exploring what individual action even means in a corporate media-saturated state.

Weird as it is, "Experimenter" is the closest he's come to a crowd-pleaser. Sarsgaard has a delightful partner in Winona Ryder as Milgram's wife, a co-adventurer. And while the film is more diffuse in the second half, it's fun to watch Milgram, through the '70s, into the '80s, continue to muse on how suggestible people are. But if we can be puppets, he says, we also have free will. The trick is to be able to see the strings on us. "Experimenter" helps us see those strings as moviegoers and humans.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Gloria Steinem. We'll look back on different periods of her life. Her new memoir is dedicated to the doctor who helped her get an abortion in England in 1957, before it was legal, except for the health of the woman. He asked that she promise two things in return.

GLORIA STEINEM: First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.

GROSS: Well, she did what she wanted to do with her life. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.