You’ve probably heard the story of Yale social scientist Stanley Milgram, who, in 1961, conducted experiments asking subjects to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to a “learner” to assess their moral pliability in the face of authority. Even if you don’t know Milgram’s name, the experiment is one that’s bounced around the echo chamber of popular culture and discourse ever since, right down to forming the centerpiece of a classic episode of The Simpsons. After all, the takeaway from Milgram’s results — most people will administer the shocks if divested of personal responsibility — is fascinatingly grim. If his data is to be taken at face value, most of us are the proverbial “good Germans” — capable of unleashing great harm under the pretext of simply following orders. In his latest film, the thoughtful but almost imperceptibly mischievous Experimenter, Michael Almereyda uses an inversion of the biopic format to consider the social and personal contexts that might create such people. Where a lesser filmmaker would limit himself to well-lit tableaux of his/her angst-ridden subject, Almereyda uses his and actor Peter Sarsgaard’s compelling portrait of Milgram as a lens through which to examine the big picture. Experimenter is about Milgram, yes, but it’s also about the society he was studying and the methods he was using to do so.
Almereyda mostly dispenses with tiresome biopic first-act niceties like pivotal childhood flashbacks and begins in medias res with an already established Milgram conducting his experiments. They are thrillingly dramatized in clinically visualized sequences that are, nevertheless, performed with urgency by a group of excellent actors. The various moral dimensions of the study are teased out almost immediately, especially in scenes involving John Leguizamo, fantastic here as a subject tormented over being asked to further shock the “learner” in the other room even as the man cries out in anguish. The learner was, in fact, an actor in Milgram’s pay (played by comedian Jim Gaffigan), a necessary illusion but one that would further complicate public perception of the study.
Almereyda mostly dispenses with tiresome biopic first-act niceties like pivotal childhood flashbacks and begins in medias res with an already established Milgram conducting his experiments.
That perception and Milgram’s reaction to it forms a significant element of the film. He was accused of cruelty, sadism and unethical manipulation of his subjects, and as the study got more famous, the fallout even began to affect his career adversely. Almereyda and Sarsgaard’s teasing out of the conflict between Milgram’s genuine humanism and the seemingly unfeeling nature of his experiments is like a microcosmic representation of the moral dilemma he’s studying. Sarsgaard, an actor whose default mode tends toward affectless remove, is a perfect choice for the material. Maybe it says something that I used to mistake this American actor as English when the reverse is usually true in this era of cross-industry migration. The deliberate verbal cadence, the quiet intellectualism, the slightly sociopathic-seeming veneer; all of it screams “British dramatic actor.” But, semi-kidding aside, it’s Sarsgaard’s performative style that gets at the core of what this film is about. Is it acceptable for admittedly high-minded intellectual curiosity to trump considerations of interpersonal empathy or emotional involvement with one’s research subjects? How far should a scientist go even while investigating epoch-defining questions of morality and social psychology?
These thematic wrinkles could easily have been smoothed out by portraying Milgram as a more conventional, warm and relatable biopic subject and, for all we know, he may have been that. But by deploying Sarsgaard’s particular performative quirks, Almereyda is able to more effectively foreground his interest in issues surrounding scientific ethics and personal responsibility. Milgram as depicted here is on a different plane from the rest of us, concerned with the big picture to the extent that the emotional well-being of individuals seems like an academic consideration to him. Even his (undoubtedly loving) relationship to his wife, played by Winona Ryder, comes across at times like a social experiment unto itself. As Almereyda builds him up as adept both as a cultural investigator but also a performer — it takes some real skill to convincingly mount an artifice as elaborate as those experiments — he contrasts Milgram’s noble intentions with that faintly sociopathic sense of objectivity I alluded to earlier. Certainly, the man is an accomplished puppet-master and Almereyda, not above his own metatextual artifices, shows us all the strings. The question there is whether Milgram’s readiness to deploy those strings outweighs the benefit of his inquiry. Make no mistake, however, the most important questions (in this writer’s opinion anyhow) are the ones Milgram’s asking.