Experimenter works well as both character study and exploration of relevant historical fact. Peter Sarsgaard inhabits Stanley Milgram with a nuanced elegance usually found in Sarsgaard’s work. There’s an intelligence behind the eyes that keeps us wondering what he’s thinking, what he’s working out in his mind. Thankfully, writer/director Michael Almereyda is smart enough himself to write from the point of view of one of the most renown behavioral psychologists ever known. Contextualizing Milgram’s life is the character himself – Sarsgaard breaks the fourth wall throughout the film, delivering long monologues regarding his history, motivations, and general outlook on the happenings around him. Though not all of these segments influenced by stage-technique are flawless, Sarsgaard is captivating enough to let any potential pitfall disappear. Milgram’s love interest and wife-to-be is played by Winona Ryder, with an equal mix of grace and excitement that only a newly-wed could effuse. Together, they chart into the disturbing waters of Milgram’s fascinating experiment.
The obedience studies were one of the most psychically troubling displays of behaviours discovered by social scientists in the last century. Milgram decided to traverse this problem due to the horrors of the second World War (of which much of his Hungarian family fell victim), and the inability to understand the rationale behind its machinated murder. In one scene, a former teacher of his asks Milgram why he’s so obsessed with the dark side of obedience and behaviour. Another scene reminds us why – the holocaust saw soldiers work people to death, disembowel pregnant women, murder children – all without much resistance, if any. Milgram’s obsessive concern was how someone could possibly follow orders such as this. How could Adolf Eichmann plan the deportation and systematic genocide, and how were these plans agreed to? This is the drive continuously visible behind Sarsgaard’s eyes – understanding how and why.
However, this preoccupation with his work is oftentimes comedic, even audibly funny. At a dinner party, Milgram hears the doorbell buzz, but instead of carrying on his conversation with the beautiful Winona Ryder he’s distracted because the buzzer reminds him of a shock-therapy session at his lab. This is the sort of thing that could easily sway into parody, but its not only funny, but it gives us a sense that the film is aware of itself in a healthy and endearing way. Another important element of this film – and what makes some of the more contemplative scenes work so well – is the score by Bryan Senti (which strongly reminds of Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Master). It essentially allows one to hear the confusion of thoughts being formed and other brain-activity finding its way. Put together, Experimenter is a well-structured, funny, captivating and insightful look into the mind of a man plagued by very tough subject matter, and the reaction of those around him at the time.
As his experiment concludes, and as his book is published across the world and television rights are sold, Milgram finds himself in a position he’d never envisioned. He’s a public figure now, used and abused by journalists at the whim of their pens, portrayed and played badly by B-list actors in horribly recreated TV movies. Milgram and his wife live in the suburbs of New York now, with Stanley teaching at CUNY. For a bit of narrative excitement, we’re treated to vignettes of past Milgram experiments throughout the film. One has four different kinds of letters distributed throughout the city with four different return addresses on them – two are fairly innocuous, but the other two are addressed to the Communist and Nazi party. Milgram was interested in which kind of letter would be sent back the most, and the percentage of each. Another experiment had two or three people stand on a busy, city sidewalk, glaring at a fixed spot in the sky, amidst the tips of skyscrapers. Eventually, bystanders would join, and look up at the sky, trying to locate the object of attention. The crowd would grow exponentially.
The film doesn’t need these experiment vignettes, or authentic footage of Eichmann at Nürnberg, or Sarsgaard speaking directly to the audience. It could’ve been yet another devoted biopic, faithfully slavish to seriousness – in this case, family trouble, work stress and the negative public reception to his studies. But Almereyda encapsulates all of the above in a way that feels documentarian, yet energetic, and written with an actual audience in mind. It’s hilarious to see Milgram interact with William Shatner (played by Kellan Lutz), who’s trying to sound smart and superior in the presence of a writer/psychologist. It’s tough to watch Milgram’s wife try to communicate the fact that her husband is having a heart-attack to a hospital nurse, and suddenly hilarious again to see Milgram recognize that she’s “just following orders”. Life is more than a stern biopic, and I thoroughly enjoyed the intelligence, humor, and empathy spread across this film.
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