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Experimenter Movie Review

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for Shockya. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.
Grade: B+
Director: Michael Almereyda
Screenwriter:  Michael Almereyda
Cast:  Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Dennis Kaysberg, Jim Gaffigan
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 8/6/15
Opens:  October 16, 2015

We Americans like to think of ourselves as a nation of individualists, resistant to authority, “Don’t tread on me,” The Marlboro Man. But some social psychologists think differently.  Social psychologists deal with the behavior of people in groups, and one of the famous psychologists from the last century is Stanley Milgram (1933-1984). At the age of 28 he conducted a major endeavor in the field, one which was praised by many but led to his vilification by others.  He’s an ideal person for a movie characterization, and Michael Almereyda, who both wrote and directed “Experimenter,” captures the scientist in a biopic graced with a solid performance by the always reliable Peter Sarsgaard.

Milgram conducted his experiment at just the right moment.  In 1961, Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Jerusalem for the war crime of managing the transportation of millions of Jews to Hitler’s death camps.  As Eichmann dispassionately watched and listened as scores of Holocaust survivors testified to the horrors of the camps, he did not deny his role, nor did he offer an apology. His sole defense was that this was his job and he was just following orders (like a good German).  Happily the court rejected the defense and Eichmann became the only person ever executed in Israel.

This leaves us with the question: would you follow orders if they were given to you by a professor, a doctor, a scientist?  Milgram signed up hundreds of test subjects, paying them in advance, stating that they could leave the experiment at any time without losing the money.  Unbeknownst to the subjects, he used an actor to feign emotions ranging from discomfort to extreme pain.  The subject, called the teacher, was instructed to give quiz questions to the learner. When the learner gave the wrong answer, the teacher was ordered to administer a shock, starting at 25 volts and working up to 450.  The actor would feign extreme pain, complaining “let me outta here,” when the voltage got high.  The teacher would inevitably turn to the scientist, asking to be excused, only to be given the response, “Please continue,” or “The experiment gives you no choice.”  Sixty-five percent of teachers carried out the authority figures commands, all the way to 450 volts.  At that point, the teacher was made aware of the nature of the experiment; that nobody felt the shocks after all.

For this, Milgram, who sat in the background, interviewed the subjects to find out why they were willing to inflict pain, inevitably getting the response, “We had no choice.”  Of course they did.  As a result, we now teach in ethics courses that it is OK to obey an immoral or illegal order.

Milgram, however, was denied tenure at Harvard because of the controversy, as people throughout the land complained that he manipulated his subjects.  What these critics may not know is that a good deal of experimentation in social psychology involve manipulation, many dealing with the need of people to conform to the group.  We in the theater audience witness such an offering in this biopic.

Almereyda appears to stick closely to the real-life adventure of Dr. Milgram, even fitting Sarsgaard with the kind of beard that Milgram wore when he took up an offer of immediate tenure and a full professorship at City University Graduate Center in New York (my alma mater).  Ditto his relationship with his wife, played by Winona Ryder, whose number he received from her at a gathering and who did not remarry despite Milgram’s premature death from a heart attack. The writer-director also uses a theatrical technique of breaking down the fourth wall, as Sarsgaard regularly talks directly to the theater audience.

This most important and famous experiment in psychology is given an authentic and frequently exciting biopic.  We root for those representing thirty-five percent of subjects who refuse to follow immoral orders and who storm out of the room.  Would that all members of the S.S. had minds of their own and had refused to follow the insane orders of the Nazi party.  And when Donald Trump announced that John McCain was no hero when he endured captivity in Vietnam, we would wish that the crowd would have pelted the builder with tomatoes rather than give him a standing ovation.

Rated R.  108 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B
Overall – B+


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Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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