Written and directed by Michael Almereyda.
Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Anthony Edwards, John Palladino, Jim Gaffigan, Harley Ware, John Leguizamo and Anton Yelchin.
In 1961, famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of radical behavior experiments that tested ordinary humans willingness to obey authority.
Michael Almereyda’s biopic about Stanley Milgram’s controversial psychological experiments is an ambitious work that brings in a cultivated art-house sensibility over and above the dramatic shocks and scares – both real and imagined. The pace is fairly subdued with an academic feel in keeping with the subject. This is further developed through the use of fourth wall breaking – with Milgram at points turning to the camera to tell us exactly why he is taking the approach he is.
Focusing on the period of 1961 when the social psychologist’s work on obedience took off in a series of Yale university experiments designed to test how willing average citizens were to toe the line, the film captures the period detail and political machinations in super high definition.
The film begins and is centered around the experiment in which people think they’re delivering electric shocks to a friendly stranger strapped into a chair in another room. The subjects are told that it’s a memory test, but in reality the experiment is about conformity, conscience, and free will. Milgram was interested in probing how likely people were to comply with authority. In the test, the authority figure is always watching over proceedings, telling the subject to continue the shocks even when they think the test subject – who is really an actor – is crying out in pain.
Milgram’s pushing of the boundaries of psychological experimentation created a storm of controversy in his time and raised questions that are still of the utmost importance today. Played with wit by Peter Sarsgaard (Black Mass, Orphan), Milgram is dedicated to his work and is compelled to discover exactly what drives people to do what they do.
The film is strong on the ethical and moral problems of tricking people into thinking they’re doing one thing when really they’re being looked at for another reason, and it is here that the film is really worth investigating. It not only looks impressive with detail from the tine brought to the fore, but it also packs in a lot of information in a relatively brief time.
As a relationship drama looking at the trials of married life involving Milgram and his wife Sacha (Winona Ryder) the film is slightly more strained, but still manages to create the impression of a driven man and a devoted partner. All in all, a diverting and intriguing piece.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.