A resurgence of peak form by Michael Almereyda after his wobbly return to Shakespeare with Cymbeline (2014), Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story is the most eccentric and arresting take on the biopic for a long time. The subject is a man who breaks down the barriers between scientific experiment and real world causality, experiences lived and experiences contrived, and the film pays heed as it dismantles boundaries between exegesis, narrative, aesthetic game, and portrait. The opening sees two men, volunteers, meeting with a lab-coated researcher, paid for participation in advance, and then allocated roles in an experiment apparently at random. Almereyda lets the viewer know quickly that not all is at it seems, as one subject, supposedly strapped into a chair to receive constantly increasing electric shocks for failing to answer questions correctly, slides out of his bonds and takes up a tape machine, whilst the other takes his place in another booth and begins the process. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) watches behind a two-way mirror. This experiment unfolds in repeating, slightly varied but essentially uniform manner, the designated “teacher” required to shock his supposedly bound opposite in another room for making mistakes proceeding in spite of misgivings, even anguish, in fulfilling the prompts of the overseer and the needs of the experiment – delivering what would be dangerous and potentially fatal shocks purely because they feel obligated to.
Many participants worry about what they're doing, but only one, a Dutch electrical worker (Anton Yelchin, in a note-perfect turn), eventually walks out, because he knows the damage he’s supposedly inflicting. This is the process behind probably the most famous moment of research in modern behavioural science, Milgram’s famous/infamous obedience test. Milgram’s conclusion: just about everyone, in spite of their supposed moral scruples and self-image as rational, independent beings, will engage in brutal activity if they think it’s necessary, if authority asks it of them, and if it’s not their responsibility how it all turns out. Almereyda utilises Peter Sarsgaard’s aura of mordant intelligence as perfect vessel to embody and communicate the essence of Milgram’s personality, as he continually speaks to the camera as confidant and student, illustrating his broad theses and methodology. Almereyda treats the matters of Milgram’s own life with the same fascinated distance as the researcher turned on others. His meeting with future wife Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Milgram (Winona Ryder) echoes a Candid Camera skit Milgram watches (a TV show that serves as a source of inspiration for the scientist, who blends serious intent with a hue of mischief), as human compatibility is seen as the product of random sequencing as the pair flirt in an elevator on the way to a party. Sasha’s eye becomes the clear receptor and mediator for her husband’s nature, with facets of arrogance, genius, defensiveness, and a certain wry, self-critical distance, anchoring the tale in a constant motif of vantage.
Milgram draws on his Jewish heritage and smouldering awareness of the Holocaust and the terrible impact it had on his family to fuel his experiments and inform their ultimate interests, but also shirks ethnic fellowship when one of his Jewish test subjects tries unctuously to make friends. Social experimentation is a method for Milgram to detach himself from history and identity but also a way of confronting it with others in tow, forcing these factors to operate on his terms. And yet Milgram notes his own, slightly obsequious need to impress his great mentor Solomon Asch (Ned Eisenburg) and comments that it’s impossible even for the most self-aware behavioural scientist to escape the trap of behaviour—indeed, most impossible for them above all. Almereyda walks viewers through Milgram’s work with real fascination and a desire to communicate its essence, whilst also adopting Milgram’s habits of illusion and discursion as filmic keys – throwing in such oddball touches as an elephant tracking Milgram through the corridors of academe and filming his actors against back-projected screens and settings. Distancing devices all, but they accord on a mysterious level with the overt concern for the politics of perception and the nature of simulacrum. In recreation Milgram’s world becomes abstract, a place of shifting realities and enclosing, pen-like environments. Almereyda’s camera seeks out the chitinous geometry of mid-20th-century architecture and the accompanying nature of its big thinking, its interest in apparent vagaries of human nature that itself tends to take on a relentless geometry when studied from enough distance. The elephant is billed inevitably as the “Elephant in the Room”, so naked a piece of symbolism that it clearly seems an impish miscue. But then again, perhaps not.
Milgram’s other investigations includes the near-equally famous “six degrees of separation” experiment which observes the surprising closeness of people in a seemingly madly busy and alienated society, a study in affirmation where his other experiments invoke the incipient stratification and self-delusion of society. But he can’t escape the obedience experiment, as one friend, Serge (Pascal Yen-Pfister) states outright to him, partly because it touches on the biggest issue of the age but also because it troubles and aggravates so many people as well – the very presumption that people are not only innately moral but that they have the right to that illusion. This presumption is an underlying message when a panel of psychiatrists grill Milgram over the ethics of his work. Meanwhile Milgram constantly chafes at the sensation of being himself the subject of some larger observation, the bug under society’s microscope, as his work drifts into wider consciousness. He achieves a contradictory state, rejected by the exclusive zones he hopes his work will project him to, a Harvard tenured professorship, but also gaining celebrity and stature, an unshiftable place as the avatar, for better or worse, of his profession. He’s recognised on the street, interviewed by Dick Cavett (Tom Bateman), and finally has the ultimate honour, having his experiment turned into a cheesy telemovie starring William Shatner (Kellan Lutz) and Ossie Davis (Dennis Haysbert). The actors prove unusually receptive and meditative conversationalists even in the midst of the absurdly melodramatic recreation of the experiment for the telemovie, a simulacrum of a simulacrum within a simulacrum. Shatner wistfully recalls breaking down the colour barrier on Star Trek whilst Davis, like Serge, sees the vital need for Milgram’s enquiries.
“Take away paradox from the thinker and you have a professor,” his colleague and friend Paul Hollander (Edoardo Ballerini) notes, quoting Kierkegaard, as Milgram objects to a student’s description of him as the real monster in the experiment. Milgram faces this argument with increasing regularity as his work is disseminated and caricatured by a fascinated but uneasy society. Some of this stems from ironic blowback as the motive of his work accords with the same urge in others, to take him down as arbiter of power, a straight white male from the intellectual elite. But much of it also stems from a need to turn Milgram himself into a kind of pseudo-Hitler, manipulating poor innocents into evil, and thus disperse the question of responsibility again. Milgram repeatedly points to the reported experiences of his subjects, many of which included gratitude for having their awareness and senses of self questioned and elevated, even as Almereyda wittily films their near-synchronised, still drone-like behaviour. The Uncertainty Principle is at work: Milgram walks into a Harvard class to alert everyone that JFK has been shot, only to be met with suspicion that he’s staging another experiment, and even the radio broadcast is dismissed as a put-on. Milgram speaks comfortably about his own death, recited as a strange and tragic vignette, stranded suffering a heart attack in the waiting room of a hospital, the crisis of his body’s duration subject to the same dictates of detachment and passed responsibility he tried to elucidate. Fiction gives way to reality at the end, as Almereyda contemplates the real Sasha’s face, regarding her as witness and vessel still. Cameos sprinkled throughout the film, including not just Yelchin and Haysbert but also John Leguizamo, Anthony Edwards, and Vondie Curtis-Hall, are potentially distracting, but that’s probably the point, whilst Ryder gives a quietly excellent performance as the self-effacing lady who becomes good woman behind the great man but also maintains a crucial humanity counterbalancing his tendency to get lost in his own obsessions, communing between past and present, viewer and subject. Experimenter might be too dry and querulous an experience for some, but I found the entire work a tonic, a radically told yet supremely confident and smoothly orchestrated kind of entertainment for the head, and easily one of the best films of the year.