The playfully dead-serious drama Experimenter depicts the life of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), the Yale social scientist who, in 1961, directed his subjects (“teachers”) to deliver shocks of escalating severity to a “learner” in order to gauge their level of obedience to “malevolent authority.” The writer-director, Michael Almereyda, clearly sees his protagonist as a master of stagecraft as well as psychology, and he gives the movie a whiff of the circus — a gorgeous, photorealist circus, often against tinted black-and-white backdrops that push its ringmaster into the foreground. Milgram talks to us, shows us things. He puts his work in historical context. He expounds on the role of obedience in turning individuals into instruments of the state — as in Nazi Germany. The word reflective suggests a slowdown or cessation of action proper, but Experimenter is busily, thrillingly reflective. Its artificiality makes it seem even more alive, more in the present tense.
I’ve known Almereyda for 35 years (since college) and always marveled at his capacity to keep experimenting in the face of commercial apathy, rarely with budgets of more than a million dollars. His modern, deadpan-funny Hamlet (with Ethan Hawke) was a true Shakespeare movie — a rethinking of what individual action even means in a corporate-media-saturated state. In other films, he’s occasionally been too cool for his own good. His passion comes out in dense networks of references and footnotes, but he’ll rarely bring himself to — as a less scrupulous artist would say — go in for the kill. Something about Milgram’s single-mindedness and drive liberates Almereyda. Milgram’s prankishness, perhaps. (The conformity experiments had spiritual ties to Candid Camera.) Or his Jewishness. Or perhaps — contradicting my complaint above — Milgram’s irritation at being perceived as too cool, even anti-human, when his moral urgency is plain.
Sarsgaard brings out every bit of tension between Milgram’s humanism and clinical objectivity. Milgram studies the “teachers” (among them a movingly anguished John Leguizamo) as they writhe in indecision, reluctant to give higher jolts of electricity to a man in the next room crying out in pain (actually a performer on Milgram’s payroll played by the mock-querulous comedian Jim Gaffigan): Milgram looks like a stereotypical Nazi scientist himself. Is he? You have to study Sarsgaard closely. Early in his career, the actor was almost too perfectly cast as the son of John Malkovich in The Man in the Iron Mask; he has the same weighty (but weirdly spaced) intonations and semi-hysterical head voice. But it takes real talent to suggest a mind so full of momentous ideas. Watch Sarsgaard press his case with Milgram’s colleagues, bending toward them as if his soul were in his forehead. He’s so in the world. Sarsgaard has a delightful partner in Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife, who can’t wait to roll up her sleeves and feel what it’s like to be shocked.
Experimenter is uncannily beautiful. Production designer Deana Sidney creates a palette of blue-grays and cool greens that’s like a Platonic dream of social science before the counterculture blew out the walls. Bryan Senti’s music finds a balance between scientific detachment and sorrow over the human capacity for cruelty, with a hint of Jewishness in the lachrymose violins. The movie’s spell holds even when it becomes more diffuse in the second half, after Milgram is pilloried for not affirming human goodness and (allegedly) traumatizing his subjects. Accused of peddling a view of mankind as inherently evil, he’s actually a “situationist.” He believes that many people under some conditions could go against their morals if ordered to do so. But his conformity experiments showed differences among cultures. In Experimenter, a Dutchman — from a culture with “a history of defiance” — has an easier time than Americans in 1961 saying no. The movie ends with Milgram asserting we can be puppets but still have free will — which would be even freer if we could learn to “see the strings” on us.
Almereyda shows us the strings. I don’t know why in two scenes an elephant follows Milgram down a corridor, but I’d like to believe he’s suggesting viewers will accept anything as part of their natural obedience to a film director. In this case, he’s right.
*This article appears in the October 5, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.