Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard as controversial postwar social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who died at age 51 in 1984, is droll and compelling. It is also imaginative in reaching outside the comfort zone of anointed scientific lions like Stephen Hawking or tragic figures like Alan Turing or John Nash in favor of a subtler type: a maverick intellectual antihero who illuminated things about people they didn’t want to hear.
Employing at Yale “the Milgram Experiment”—in which subjects thought they were administering electric shocks to his accomplices, who in fact merely faked pain—he showed that even presumptively upstanding Americans could be induced to mistreat others by those in authority. Prompted in part by Eichmann’s implementation of the Final Solution—Milgram was Jewish, born in New York to Eastern European immigrants—his work remains sadly relevant today. His results were considered remarkable fifty years ago, helped get him back to Harvard (his alma mater), and culminated in a popular 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, that was shortlisted for the National Book Award. But his academic peers also looked askance at his ethics. Though Milgram ultimately landed on his feet at CUNY, Harvard denied him tenure.
As a biopic, the movie could have been dry, awkward, and sentimental. But Almereyda’s ear for humor in solemn discourse and his deft employment of cinematic devices—in particular, an aggressive first-person voice-over, abundant wry asides, and dashes of magical realism—instead afford it an endearing whimsicality that sweetens its seriousness without masking it. Experimenter is not only an inventive exploration of the life and personality of an offbeat and perhaps misunderstood intellectual; it is also an exposition of his relentlessly probing mind and jarring revelations. In addition to surprising obedience to authority, these include the unexpected connectedness of individuals (“six degrees of separation,” or the “small world” experiment) and their internalization of social biases (the “lost letter” experiment).
Experimenter invites comparison with The Stanford Prison Experiment, released earlier this year, which concerns a Stanford social scientist’s simulation of a prison in which student volunteers were assigned the roles of guards and inmates and descended shockingly into character. But that film, while riveting and disturbing, is really just a very sharp re-enactment of an experiment conducted by a striving, insensitive, and apparently inept social scientist who allowed his subjects to run amok. Milgram, in contrast, never lost control of his volunteers, was anything but incompetent, and distilled conclusions about human interaction that were potentially profound. Experimenter is the more complex and ambitious movie.
The seasoned character actors populating the narrative—especially Dennis Haysbert, Anthony Edwards, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo and comedian Jim Gaffigan—are just right. Winona Ryder too is very good as Milgram’s devoted wife Sasha, who intuits that he is a decent man without quite knowing it. But the film belongs to Sarsgaard, whose snide inflection and quiet, wall-eyed intensity are ideally suited to the material. Bringing the story to a close with Milgram’s early death in his signature soft minor key, the actor leaves the audience with the sense of a man who, for all his clinical manipulations and personal aloofness, however unloved or suspect he was, believed in the promise of humanity and saw himself as a fine instrument for advancing it by understanding human foibles.