In the wake of last weekend’s terrorist attacks in Paris, I was mulling over the events with a friend when they mentioned the by now ubiquitous Facebook feature which allows users to apply a flag filter to their profile picture. The feature first came to prominence earlier this year when, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality decision, users were given the option to superimpose the gay pride flag over said pictures. Less than 24 hours after the Paris attacks, both my friend and I saw our feeds become inundated with displays of Francophile solidarity via the new French flag filter, and while both of us are fairly agnostic when it comes to such a practice, we’ve also never felt the need to participate. But just as we reiterated these feelings, my friend decided to drape their profile picture in the now standard blue, white, and red. They still didn’t really believe in the practice, but since almost all of their friends were doing it…
It was a perfect segue into that night’s screening of Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, a wry and incisive examination of the life of controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Experimenter is a film that most of you probably won’t see during its theatrical run. It belongs to that increasingly endangered species of the low to mid-range indie film that doesn’t traffic in nostalgia or the sentimental narrative. So its commercial chances outside of major cities are likely to be limited. And that’s a shame, because it’s quite possibly one of the finest American features of the year, and a work of art with a strong sense of relevance.
Experimenter belongs, of course, to that hoariest of filmic genres: the biopic. Even the great films in this field tend to suffer from the same rote expositional pattern: the formative experiences that help to shape the protagonist, the rise to glory, the inevitable conflict and fall from grace, the moment of redemption or arrival at manageable stasis. That redemptive moment has been especially key in the modern biopic, which seems to strive for the catharsis that comes with the sentimental narrative. The death of the commercially viable low budget indie certainly hasn’t helped; throw any substantial money or star power behind a biopic and the prospects of a challenging narrative or dark conclusion become a gamble that most studios shy away from.
It’s these popular strictures that make what the artistically peripatetic Almereyda does with the form so interesting. Take the casting of Peter Sarsgaard as the prickly Milgram. Though he’s dabbled in mainstream fare like Jarhead and Flightplan, Sarsgaard’s career path has wound mainly through less commercial films and theater work. There’s a certain flatness of affect that pervades much of his acting that can be off-putting at first. It’s what made him so good as the skeptical sourpuss editor in Shatttered Glass and as the war-ravaged Troy in Jarhead, but it also denies the audience the standard frisson that a classic leading man brings to most biopics, the Seduce and Destroy method as Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey might put it (fellow theater vet Edward Norton also fits into this category.) In Experimenter, that flatness gives him a dark, wickedly compelling charisma, his permanent slouch lending him the air of an observant vulture, his prominent brow and penetrating eyes creating an almost hypnotic effect as he breaks the fourth wall throughout the film. He and Almereyda aren’t really concerned with making Milgram that likeable (at least in a modern sense…more on that later), but the sum total of the patter he shares with the audience is deeply seductive. You’re being let in on his secrets, and from the safety of your cushioned seat you can agree that of course not, you’d never be as easily influenced as the subjects of his experiments.
But subject you are, like it or not, because of the shrewd manner in which Almereyda further subverts the formal aspects of the genre. Once an elephant appears behind Milgram as he lays out his methods to the audience, you know that this isn’t a narrative overly concerned with straight definitions of reality. Almereyda has said that he aimed to give the impression of a film that Milgram might make about his own life, an approach borne out by the stylistic devices employed as the story progresses. One of the most formally daring gambits occurs when Milgram and his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder, in a compelling, subdued turn) visit his mentor Solomon Asch (Ned Eisenberg). The initial shot of their car ride to his home, with black and white rear projection of the background, seems to be a sly nod to the film language of yore (much as Quentin Tarantino did so in the Butch/Esmerelda cab ride in Pulp Fiction.) But the rest of the scene plays out in the same manner, with the bulk of the Asch home presented in similarly flat black and white projected relief. This Brechtian method is applied in several other scenes; it’s a fitting psychological representation of a man whose life was dominated by the observational imperative, and whose emotional life could often seem stunted by an analytical drive.
Though Milgram’s most famous, and controversial, experiments tested obedience to authority through a staged series of escalating electrical shocks, his further work expanded out into other corners of social norms and the herd mentality. One of his later studies involved the analysis of how a camera could transform from being a passive observer and recorder of images to an influence on behavior (a thread which continues to be parsed in the documentary field.) This section of his career is given relatively brief notice late in the film, but it ultimately serves as the guiding principle behind Almereyda’s approach, which combines a cool, Kubrickian formalism with a dry, humorous, playfulness that leavens even some of the darker moments. When Milgram interviews three female test subjects almost a year after their participation (in order to determine any long-term trauma they might have suffered), each professes that she would never consciously perform the acts she executed during the tests. When they’re offered coffee, the latter two women follow the first one’s lead when she asks for two sugars, and framed in staggered close-up, they all sip from their Styrofoam cups at the same time.
For most of the film, DP Ryan Samul’s camera views Milgram with the same sense of cool rigor that he views his subject, even as his fourth wall breaking feigns at a sense of intimacy with the audience (of course, it’s the controlled intimacy of a man speaking to an audience that isn’t even present.) The psychologist spends much of the narrative observing others through two-way mirrors or through the psychological barriers which he erects in his head. When he meets with a CBS executive to discuss adapting Obedience to Authority into a Playhouse 90 episode, he’s finally forced to be the man in the glass box when the exec surreptitiously abandons him for the day. The suddenly powerless psychologist’s only recourse is to observe those in the waiting room outside of the clear-walled office, but as the camera frames him in long shot, the setting that has usually provided him with security now encloses him in a trap that shuts him off from the rest of the world.
The appearance of John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, Anthony Edwards, and Dennis Haysbert (among others) in small supporting roles also enhances the film’s meta-narrative sense of distancing, all while maintaining a twinge of humor. The scenes of Haysbert (as Ossie Davis) and Kellan Lutz (as William Shatner) in the melodramatic Playhouse 90 episode, in particular, send the proceedings deep into the narrative rabbit hole, as Milgram is forced to defend his experimental methods and philosophy to the vain actor portraying a stylized version of himself. And, of course, we’re always aware that we’re watching a recreation of a recreation. Just as we realize that this is a film that, in part, deals with the camera’s power to influence reality while also subverting reality in its representation of it, so too does Milgram ultimately end up trapped deep within a narrative construct in which the boundaries of reality and his self-made fictions begin to blur. Even the real life dramatic high point of the story (the mid-class announcement of the Kennedy assassination in Milgram’s Harvard class) is exploded when the first reaction of two students is that this is just another one of the doctor’s experiments.
George Orwell’s name is invoked several times in Experimenter, most notably in twin commuter rail scenes in which a statuesque blonde is seen first reading a copy of Animal Farm and then 1984. Those two classic works on behavioralism are natural touchstones for a film of this subject matter, but Almereyda might also have been feinting toward another lesser known Orwell work with his invocation of the elephant imagery at the beginning and climax of the film. In his short story/essay “Shooting an Elephant”, Orwell reflects on his time serving as a police officer in Burma, and how when a rampaging elephant is finally subdued, he refuses to kill it. But the will of the village’s populace is too strong, and against his own better instincts he carries out the act. It’s one of the great critiques of the failures of the British empire, but it also serves as a timeless reminder of the power of the crowd.
Which, in turn, is why even though it depicts psychological experiments from over 50 years ago, Experimenter remains a cautionary tale for our time. Almereyda makes this point explicit in Milgram’s closing narration from beyond the grave when he notes the repeated efficacy of his obedience to authority methodology and tests decades later. And in this culture of the like, in which building and maintaining a personal brand in all matters and venues often trumps individuality, and where the social media philosophy emphasizes a common collective response or a harsh collective ostracization, the film is a reminder that considering the herd mentality to be a stock cliché is a dangerous underestimation. In 1984, George Orwell understood that the true malignant power of the surveillance state wasn’t in the camera eye, but in the self-censorship that formed within when one knew that they were always being observed. It’s not that far of a jump from Oceania to the Panopticon to Milgram’s studies to the Stanford Prison Experiment. We live in a culture explicitly tailored to individual experiences, tastes, and needs, but too often we’re still looking over our shoulder. Or pushing that next electroshock button, even though we know that no, we’d never do that, not us.