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EXPERIMENTER: A DRY, DIDACTIC LECTURE

by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor  [January 14, 2016]

 

 

 

 

 

[HollywoodInvestigator.com]  Experimenter is based on true events. Specifically, the scientific discoveries of Stanley Milgram.

Milgram, a social psychologist, became famous in the early 1960s because of his experiments on obedience. Subjects were asked to inflict painful -- and potentially life-threatening -- electric shocks upon another person. Milgram wanted to see how many people would injure -- and potentially kill -- other people, simply because an authority figure (the scientists conducting the experiment) asked them to.

No one was actually injured. The electric shocks were bogus. But the subjects didn't know that.

Milgram discovered that most people will blindly follow the orders of an authority figure, even to the point of possibly killing another person.

When he published his findings, controversy ensued because people thought his experiments immoral. That Milgram was inflicting psychological harm upon his subjects (guilt, shame, etc.) by lying to them and pressuring them to injure other people. Milgram countered that his critics were more upset by his findings (that so many normal, decent Americans, would blindly obey sadistic orders simply because they were orders).

Milgram was Jewish. (I say was, because he died in 1984.) He said the Nazis were the inspiration for his experiment. He wondered why so many otherwise normal, decent people, had followed the Nazis' orders. He wondered if it could happen here or anywhere else.

We know all this because Experimenter is an aggressively didactic film. Not so much a drama as a lecture. Not only does Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard) give voiceovers throughout the film, but he's always turning to us, the viewing audience, to lecture us about his experiment, his observations on life, and his personal life in general. Milgram was a professor, and this film feels like an extended lecture, with some of the events dramatized for our education.

The science stuff is interesting. But something is ... lacking. The film feels dry and hollow. I came away feeling like I hadn't learned much about Milgram at all.

Ironically, the film intends the opposite goal. In the DVD's special features, Milgram's real-life brother says the purpose of Experimenter was to show Milgram's human side. That he was a real person, with a family and feelings and such. This film is supposed to depict Milgram's reactions -- that he was hurt or disappointed, I guess -- over the criticism he endured for his experiments.

On that score, Experimenter fails.

 

 

 

Sarsgaard's delivery is mostly flat and monotonal. Which, I suppose, was Milgram's demeanor while conducting his experiments. Very scientific and authoritative. But Sarsgaard/Milgram carry that tone throughout the film. In scenes where Milgram is criticized by the press, colleagues, and students, Milgram just stands there looking befuddled. Not warm or empathetic. More like a coldly logical Mr. Spock, perplexed by human reactions that he does not understand. Why do they not see the importance of my work? So illogical, these humans.

When Sarsgaard tries to sound enthusiastic or demoralized, his tone dips or rises ever so slightly. Not by much. More like a robot who's trying to pass for human, rather than an actual human.

On rare occasions, Migram's wife, Sasha (played by Winona Ryder), turns snippy or mildly upset. Ever so slightly snippy. But there's never any real bickering between them. They come across as a bland, middle class couple, with no serious emotional turmoil in their lives. In one scene, in a diner, Milgram apologizes to his wife. We never learn why. It's implied that there's strain in their marriage, but we don't see it. The apology comes out of nowhere, for no reason. Milgram apologizes in a mild tone. Ryder mildly accepts it. They're a remarkably serene couple. One suspects they buy Quaalude by the boxcar.

 

 

 

 

The curious production design adds to the film's dry non-drama. This is a period piece. But rather than build period sets, with all the expense that entails, much of Experimenter simply uses black & white photographic backdrops. When Milgram and Sasha are in a car (above), the car is obviously indoors, in front of black & white photos of houses or streets. It's like watching a stage play rather than a film.

The DVD's special features include an interview with the production designer, who offers some aesthetic excuse for doing it this way. My own reaction -- the backdrops feel stifling, adding to the film's dry lecture tone. Adding to the film's ponderous dullness.

Aesthetics aside, I wonder if all these backdrops weren't just a way to save money. Recreating the 1960s - 1970s would have cost more. Cheaper to use backdrops.

And what's with the elephant? Several times, Milgram exits his lab and walks down a university hall -- and then an elephant appears behind him. Following him. I don't know if it was a real elephant on set, or a green screen, or digitally added into scene. I only want to know -- what was the point of the elephant? Symbolic of something, I suppose. But elephants are famous for their memory rather than obedience, or lack thereof.

Really, why are elephants following Milgram in a university hallway?

 

 

Winona Ryder has a small, thankless role as "the wife." She doesn't say or do much. Mainly she's there to admire Milgram. To show us that Milgram had a loving and supportive wife. (He did -- the real Sasha appears at film's end to say a few words about her late husband's important work.)

Ryder's appearance in this small role underscore the complaints of many older actresses -- the dearth of significant roles for actresses once they turn 40. This is a shame because many of the actresses I admire most are currently in their forties -- Ryder, Lena Headey, Parker Posey, Naomi Watts.

Not that "the wife" has to be a small role. Ryder's role as "the wife" in The Lois Wilson Story was the lead role. Headey's role as the politically ambitious wife in Zipper was similarly complex and meaty. But on the whole, it's sad to see significant roles dry up -- or know that they're soon to dry up -- for so many of Hollywood's most creative women.

As for Experimenter, it's a dry, tedious lecture. Intellectually interesting, but not exciting or emotionally engaging. As another reviewer said, considering the subject matter, this film should have been so much more.

 

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