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'Experimenter' Revisits A Decades-Old Trial Of Free Will And Compassion

Peter Sarsgaard plays social scientist Stanley Milgram in <em>Experimenter. </em>
Jason Robinette
Magnolia Pictures
Peter Sarsgaard plays social scientist Stanley Milgram in Experimenter.

Michael Almereyda's movie, Experimenter, revisits a controversial 1961 social science experiment, which explored whether volunteer subjects would press a button and shock other volunteers if so ordered.

Experimenter centers on Stanley Milgram, the social scientist best known for his 1961 study at Yale on the nature of obedience. It works terrifically onscreen. We see Milgram, played by Peter Sarsgaard, and his assistants direct their subjects — who are told to think of themselves as "teachers" — ask questions to a so-called "learner" in the next room and press a button delivering an electric shock when the answer is wrong.

As that guy in the next room yelps in pain and begs to stop, a lab-coated overseer commands the "teacher" to disregard the cries and, in the majority of cases, the "teacher" does just that — often visibly anguished but compliant nonetheless.

It's a fake-out. The "learner" is an actor, here played by the likably whiny comedian Jim Gaffigan, but before revealing the hoax, we see Sarsgaard's Milgram coolly question a subject, played by a poignantly stricken John Leguizamo.

Sarsgaard is an edgy, enigmatic actor, and the way he probes Leguizamo, you wonder if Milgram is a sadist, if he likes making people writhe. That's what some colleagues and newspaper editorialists wonder, too, when Milgram's study is published. Was he unethical in how he traumatized his subjects? And does he mean to say humans have no conscience? The controversy keeps him from getting tenure at Harvard and dogs him for life.

Director Michael Almereyda presents a more sympathetic view. Milgram, who was Jewish, brought fierce moral urgency to the problem of why, during the Holocaust, Germans — among others — obeyed so readily what he called "malevolent authority." But he didn't believe people were inherently indifferent to others' suffering. In one scene, an immigrant from the Netherlands angrily quits the experiment because, Milgram theorizes, the man came from a culture with a, quote, "history of defiance."

Experimenter is itself experimental. Now and then Sarsgaard looks into the camera and talks to us. He narrates snippets of historical footage. He puts his work in a social context. He smiles at his ingenuity as a master of stagecraft, a trickster not unlike the people who made the TV show Candid Camera — which Milgram is shown watching for confirmation of his theories on conformity.

Some scenes take place against gorgeous tinted photographs of train stations and Ivy League university buildings. The movie even satirizes movies once in a scene in which Milgram watches actors play him and a colleague in a terrible TV dramatization. In another scene, Milgram walks down a busy corridor, talking to the camera, while an elephant follows behind. I have no idea why — I wonder if Almereyda is mischievously goofing on the audience's acceptance of the filmmaker's authority. Huh, an elephant, okay.

I'll ask him sometime. I've known Almereyda for 35 years — we were in college together — and though I try to be objective about his work, I've never stopped admiring his capacity to keep experimenting, with small budgets, usually in the face of box-office indifference. I especially love his modern-day Manhattan Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, which, despite textual cuts does right by Shakespeare — and also goes on to explore what individual action means in a corporate-media-saturated state.

Weird as it is, Experimenter is the closest he has come to a crowd-pleaser. Sarsgaard has a delightful partner in Winona Ryder as Milgram's wife, a co-adventurer. And while the film is more diffuse in the second half, it's fun to watch Milgram — through the '70s into the '80s — continue to muse on how suggestible people are.

But if we can be puppets, he says, we also have free will. The trick is to be able to "see the strings" on us. Experimenter helps us see those strings, as moviegoers and humans.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.

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