Experimenter (USA, 2015)

Directed by: Michael Almereyda. This one was eyeing me for over a year on the library shelves (I guess nobody wanted to take it out), but I resisted because it didn’t look like it would be an amazing movie. And indeed, it wasn’t, but it was a good movie, very interesting, and a lot more interesting than I gave it credit for. The basics are there—Peter and Winona, can’t go wrong—and this story is one of the more interesting take-aways I still remember from my first-year Psych classes. But this film doesn’t approach the story as a regular biopic, they take this very scientific distance, making a presentational film with self-conscious fake backgrounds, inviting Dr. Milgram to address the camera and narrate his own life (including his death!), in a way I haven’t seen since Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein movie, or maybe Dogville. I thought it was an extremely effective approach, allowing me, counter-intuitively, to dive deeper into the questions at stake in the film. And really, that’s also a very impressive feat, that this film is essentially about these psychological experiments, these questions about individual choice and the involuntary psychological tendencies that manifest in group dynamics, which Milgram spent his life exploring, but the film doesn’t turn its back on the human character dynamics that keep viewers anchored to a story. Somehow, and I don’t actually remember how without re-watching, but they were able to give enough time towards Dr. and Mrs. Milgram’s relationship that it didn’t feel rushed or minimalized—Winona’s performance didn’t strike me as squashed or tokenized in any way, or at least considering the fact that the film was primarily about academic questions of social psychology. And those questions were compelling to me anyway. Having just finished Shoah not too long ago, I was interested to learn that, as Milgram narrates to us, walking down a hall with a giant elephant walking behind him, the “elephant in the room”—yes, indeed, his family was Jewish, and these questions were far from academic for Milgram. This was all very real—why do people behave as they do? Why do people obey authority figures when their commands conflict with a person’s basic morality? Eichmann’s trial was on TV at the time, the dust had only just settled, and Milgram could never shake the events of Nazi Germany, because it was an accident of luck that he was born in the Bronx instead of Eastern Europe. All my life, since I was a kid, I’ve been compelled by these events, but when you read about them, you get very little questioning of what and how and why. And as I noted in the Shoah review, I’m open to the debate about the question of why, but it is refreshing to be reminded that I’m not the only one who asked that question, and that there were, in fact, academic studies probing into this stuff. On a side note, it’s always a treat to see big talent in small roles, including Jim Gaffigan as the guy getting shocked, and a pile of extremely talented actors as test subjects—Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, the late Anton Yelchin (RIP). It indicates that this film has so much heft that it can afford to relegate top-notch talent for only 2-10 minutes of screentime.


2 responses to “Experimenter (USA, 2015)

  1. Pingback: The Stanford Prison Experiment (USA, 2015) | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2017 | Offhand Reviews·

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