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‘Experimenter’ is a movie as experimental as its subject

By Rich Bonaduce, Standard-Examiner Correspondent - | Oct 22, 2015
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A man and his machine. Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in EXPERIMENTER, a Magnolia Pictures release.

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Sasha (Winona Ryder) and Stanley (Peter Sarsgaard) study each other in EXPERIMENTER, a Magnolia Pictures release.

When I was in college at SUU and attending various Psych and Soc 101 classes, we learned of Stanley Milgram and his experiments. Well, we didn’t learn about all of them, just one in particular: his famous (some would say infamous) behavior experiment; one that was deemed both radical and ethically questionable in his day, but one we still discuss (and learn about) today. But as the title implies, “Experimenter” is as much about the man as it is about his notorious experiments.

In July of 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann who basically claimed to be “just following orders” as his defense for his atrocities against mankind, Yale University psychologist Milgram (played hunched over and smug by Peter Sarsgaard in the film), began a series of experiments to test the willingness of everyday people to obey authority figures. Milgram was curious whether Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures or whether this could be replicated essentially anywhere. He didn’t expect the findings he recorded, nor did he expect the backlash he received over the structure of the experiment, and from the test subjects themselves.

Milgram wanted to test how far people would go in obeying instructions even if it involved harming another person. Although there were 18 variations to the experiment, essentially volunteers were recruited and paid $4.50 just for showing up for a lab experiment ostensibly investigating “learning.” These participants were of various ages, sexes and professions. They were partnered with another supposed volunteer who was actually a hired actor playing the role of “learner,” with the actual volunteer always playing the role of “teacher.” A third person, an additional actor hired by Milgram, was the “Experimenter” in a lab coat; the authority figure who gave the orders to the volunteer Teacher.

The Learner was in one room, strapped to a chair with electrodes, and given a list of word pairs to learn. The Teacher sat in an adjacent room, testing his memory. If the Learner got a word pair wrong, the Experimenter told the Teacher to administer an electric shock to the Learner — a shock that increased in intensity with each subsequent error. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). A whopping 65 percent of the participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts, while a hefty 100 percent of the participants continued to at least 300 volts. Amazing results to be sure, but possibly equally amazing where the reactions to the results.

Upon publishing of the paper, ethical questions arose about the experiment, which eventually became questions regarding the experimenter himself, Stanley Milgram. The film delves into both in a way that doesn’t paint either in an especially positive light.

Sarsgaard’s Milgram is a man physically collapsed in on himself, egotistical and seemingly walking through a veil of a life, wherein all of his fellow human beings are merely test subjects, including his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder). Writer/director Michael Almereyda (“Hamlet,” 2000) creates a film that is almost an experiment in and of itself; with metaphorical props in the background, sets that sometimes recall those of a play and not of a movie, and with Sarsgaard addressing the camera and the audience directly, even discussing his own early death. The actual Sasha’s eventual appearance in the film makes for a powerful ending, but only after a 90-minute meander through Milgram’s lesser known experiments, all while dissecting the experimenter himself, who is painted as an ethical contradiction equal to his experiments. The subject matter makes for an interesting film, but the execution is bit confusing; I felt as though I was being experimented on myself with the curious filmmaking choices, with some being downright questionable.


  • THE FILM: ‘Experimenter'
  • CRITIC RATING: *** stars
  • STARRING: Winona Ryder, Peter Sarsgaard, Anton Yelchin, William Shatner, John Leguizamo, Anthony Edwards. Josh Hamilton, Jim Gaffigan
  • PLAYING: Broadway Theater
  • MPAA RATING: Rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language. 90 minutes


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