Have you ever done something you didn't want too? Well, having a job, that happens every morning when the alarm goes off. But, looking back at history, people have done incredibly evil things simply because they were asked to do so. At Nuremberg, the standard defence was that "I was following orders". It seems like a weak defence when you are defending the indefensible. But what, just if, it was true? What if, you were asked really nicely? In the 1960's, Stanley Milgram created the "Obedience to Authority Figures" test, now known as The Milgram Experiment, to find out just that. The results are shocking and the subject of a new bio-pic, Experimenter, by Michael Almereyda.
Looking at Milgram's life, but placing his most famous experiment at the centre, we see how he came up with the experiment and the other tests that looked at group will upon a person. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Milgram and his constant breaking of the forth wall, talking us through what he is doing, makes the experiment more real and rather scary. Visually, Almereyda uses Sarsgaard as our gateway to the questions posed and the uncomfortable answers, most strikingly with a literal elephant in the room when a Jew discusses why so many of his people were killed, willingly by normal, and not evil, human beings. And here is the crux of the Milgram Experiment and Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (Zinbardo's book The Lucifer Effect is highly recommended reading), it doesn't need an evil person to do evil things, if they are compelled or asked by an authority figure, or given the authority themselves, they will do what is asked of them. It is a terrifying thought. Saragaard plays Milgram with a detachment and almost flat cadence to his voice, only seeming to become more animated when discussing the results of his experiment and the ones that followed. His life outside of the work is dominated by his wife Sasha, played rather well by Winona Ryder, and it is this juxtaposition that gives the film it's heart against the cold science. Back-projected car rides and random conversations, like with a pretend Abraham Lincoln, give a fluidity to Sarsgaard's asides to the audience. But through it all are the experiments. The Milgram Experiment takes up most of the first half of the film, with each member of the public, induced with a cash payement to take part in the Yale experiment, is sat down and asked to ask questions and give an increasing electric shock for each wrong answer. Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin all pass through the Experimenter's chair and it is their familiarity that adds to our discomfort. We are told, and agree, that we would never go all the way, but as we watch people, just like us, flip switch after switch, we start to wonder, would we do that, if asked nicely?
Experimenter is a rare film that makes science understandable. As well as the more famous Milgram Experiment, we also see the Small World test that proved the "six degrees of separation" idea. We also see a very interesting "Lost Letter Experiment" where people find lost letters and, depending on the address, will send the letters back in varying levels. Black neighbourhoods would send more letters to NAACP than they would to a right wing organisation. That does not do the deft touch that Almereyda brings to these experiments that make watching the science so fascinating. It is that question that Milgram keeps asking that is the crux of Almereyda's surprisingly affective film, would I do those things? What is individuality if we all do the same thing? The direction and cast are superb throughout. As we constantly ask how people can do such horrible things, every time we switch on the news, to look again at Milgram's work could, possibly, help us to understand not just ourselves, but those who undertake to do the unthinkable.
Experimenter is released in December.