Experimenter (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): A thought-provoking examination on human nature

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The Milgram experiment is alternatively fascinating and disturbing for good reasons. Demonstrating how easily we can let ourselves obey to authority figures without any thought or question, this famous social psychology experiment suggests a dark, uncomfortable side of our human nature, and it has steadily gained academic significance during last 55 years.

Besides recreating the experiment procedure on the screen, “Experimenter” is genuinely interested in not only a man behind the experiment but also his thought-provoking ideas on human behaviors. Thanks to its intelligent storytelling approach, I was involved in what was presented on the screen, and I observed its thoughtful moments with curiosity and amusement.

The early scenes in the movie show Dr. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) during the initial phase of his research at Yale University in 1961, and we get a detailed look on how his experiment was executed. Under his assistant’s supervision, two volunteers are respectively assigned to the roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’, and then the latter goes into a closed separate booth. While the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner’ cannot see each other, they can communicate with each other, and the former starts a lesson with the series of paired words to be memorized by the latter. During the following test, the ‘teacher’ has to punish the ‘learner’ with electronic shock whenever the latter gives a wrong answer for question, and the former is supposed to increase the level of electronic shock in 15-volt increment for each wrong answer, no matter how much the latter seems to be hurt more and more by this punishment.

Actually, the ‘learner’ is a hired actor faking the responses to supposedly administered electronic shocks, and that was a crucial element in Milgram’s experiment, which turned out to be more revealing than he expected. Even when the ‘learner’ showed more alarming responses than before, most of his volunteers went further to higher levels of punishment, though they showed hesitation and disturbance during the process.

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Although his experiment was not entirely without manipulative aspects which were deemed to be unethical by its critics, most of his volunteers showed positive responses in fact after learning its real purpose. Played by Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, and Anton Yelchin, some of the volunteers in the movie have each own brief but impressive moment, and we can see how much they are affected by the experience on which they will reflect for a long time.

Meanwhile, Milgram happens to encounter a young woman on his way to a party both of them are going to attend, and he and Sasha (Winona Ryder) quickly fall in love with each other as talking more with each other at the party. Not long after becoming Mrs. Milgram, Sasha goes to her husband’s workplace, and it does not take much time for this smart, well-educated woman to be one of the main supporters of her husband’s research. While her role seems to be thankless at first, Ryder gives a solid supporting performance next to Peter Sarsgaard, and they are believable as two people drawn to each other on both intellectual and emotional levels.

Under its theatrical tone accompanied with a few offbeat touches including an elephant which literally represents a certain familiar phrase, the movie freely looks around Milgram’s academic career and interests, and Sarsgaard is smooth and effortless even when he is talking directly to us. Milgram in the film is not just a talking figure but an interesting guy with ideas to share with us, and Sarsgaard is convincing with his cool professional façade which subtly suggests a curious mind operating behind it.

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The director/writer Michael Almereyda also gives enough space to Milgram’s other intriguing experiments, and he did a competent job of presenting them with humor and insight. When Milgram started to teach at Harvard in 1963, he was widely known in public for his experiment at Yale, and there is an absurd scene where he comes into the class to announce a real shocking news report but nobody believes him just because they thought it was his another experiment. While he was at the City University of New York during the 1970s, Milgram had a number of his students look up to the sky as if there were something to see up there, and what was resulted from this experiment amusingly shows us the susceptibility of human mind to group behavior.

One of the most humorous scenes in the movie comes from when Milgram allows his most famous experiment to be fictionalized for 1976 TV movie “The Tenth Level”, starring William Shatner and Ossie Davis. Wearing a hilariously dated hairpiece, Dennis Haysbert has a short but juicy moment when Davis comes to have a chance to talk with Milgram during the shooting. During their conversation, Davis finds himself revealing how much Milgram’s experiment resonates with his painful personal memory from the past, and we come to reflect on how many incidents of human atrocities including the Holocaust, which was incidentally the starting point for Milgram, echo what is implied from Milgram’s experiment. Sometimes people can be helplessly or thoughtlessly obedient in front of authority, and it can be said that the Milgram experiment exemplifies that famous phrase defined by Milgram’s contemporary Hannah Arendt.

Although it often feels like the dramatized version of a biography documentary film, “Experimenter” works as an unconventional biography film thanks to its smart screenplay and good performances. Human nature is still a compelling scientific/philosophical subject to be explored, and the movie reminds me that there are probably much more things to learn for us out there. We may never fully understand ourselves even at the end of our time on the Earth, but we will certainly not be bored anyway.

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