Peter Sarsgaard plays Dr. Stanley Milgram in the 2015 bio-pic “Experimenter.” While it is perhaps not his most compelling performance, you will hard-pressed to find a better actor than Sarsgaard and the life and thought of Milgram is spellbinding. If you are not already aware of Milgram’s famous experiments with obedience to authority in the 1960s, this film will tell you the story of that controversy. Writer and director, Michael Almereyda proves to be a magnificent storyteller.
***This review will contain spoilers***
A short historical sketch: Dr. Milgram believed that Americans, if given the chance to defy an authoritarian voice demanding that they torture another person, would do so. He believed that if regular Americans were brought into a lab and ordered to send 450 volts into a person with a heart condition, a person begging for mercy, most regular Americans would refuse. Milgram hired actors to pretend to be shocked with dangerous levels of voltage and pretend to beg for mercy. He would then study the moral fortitude of Americans who refused authoritarian commands to continue. Milgram was then going to test similar subjects in Berlin. He believed that Germans would show a higher willingness to continue torture. What he found was that regular people, regardless of race, sex, or emotional vulnerability were willing to obey the voice of the authoritarian. Simple, direct commands by a man in a lab coat were obeyed:
Prod 1: “Please continue.”
Prod 2: “The experiment requires you to continue.”
Prod 3: “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
Prod 4: “You have no other choice but to continue.”
These prods were obeyed while desperate cries "I told you I have a heart condition! Let me out of here!" were heard, met with sympathy, but eventually ignored.
The film asks the question, why did these “normal Americans”—even those who were visibly upset by their own actions—obey the authoritarian voice behind them and not the suffering voice in front of them? Both the study and the film instruct us that the person administering the torture believes that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens even if unethical. If told by an authoritarian voice that this is so, they will act as agents for another person’s will. Milgram called this the “agentic state.”
The “agentic state” is the just-following-orders, just-doing-my-job, take-it-up-with-management mentality. But the agentic state also can take the form of extreme protests followed by distraught obedience. Milgram was motivated to learn how otherwise cool, collected Nazi officers and death camp guards could do what they did. Moreover, why didn’t they (many of them) show any remorse after the war? Answer: the person in an agentic state is willing to suspend moral judgment to comply with the cool, collected voice of the authority.
Cool and collected is how Dr. Stanley Milgram is played by Sarsgaard. As the film amps up from a lab-room dramatization to a Technicolor bio-pic, Milgram is revealed to be the very authoritarian which he fears. He is a dispassionate, controlling, and quietly menacing presence in the lab, classroom, and marriage life. In this way Sarsgaard is the perfect choice for the part of Milgram.
Where “Experimenter” is most compelling is in Michael Almereyda’s use of symbolism as he blurs lines between subjects and objects on multiple layers. I’ll only give a couple of examples. Almereyda plays up Milgram’s Jewishness as a key theme in the movie. The Holocaust is literally and symbolically the backdrop for Milgram’s scientific motivation. The symbol used for this purpose is a meandering elephant in his office hallway. The beast serves as a proxy. It represents a force too powerful and ubiquitous not to exert influence on Milgram’s research. On a level closer to the surface of the narrative, Milgram’s study focuses on the proxy-nature of people who torture others as an extension of a third party’s authority. In other words, the study itself is a proxy for the failure of human morality in the death camps.
Blurring the lines further, Milgram’s wife—played by Winona Rider—complains that Milgram will not receive screen royalties for the fictionalization of his book. As salt in the would, she calls the actor that will play Milgram on television “a goy.” This commentary plays with a meaning beyond the narrative as Sarsgaard (the stand-in for Milgram in this film) himself is a goy. Almereyda repeatedly blurs lines between audience and narrative throughout the film.
In my view the most intriguing use of symbolism and line-blurring plays on a golem theme. Milgram’s son—played Jude Patrick White—is the symbolic golem. In myth, the golem is a creature made by magic from inanimate material (cf. the use of the word גלמ in Ps 139:16). A golem is often portrayed as a soulless creature animated only to serve the will of its master. Almereyda’s nod to this tradition is asserted boldly as Milgram’s son is given green skin and dressed as Frankenstein’s monster. If my suggestion that this symbolism echoes golem tradition it right, it would further express the point that Milgram’s quest to study the agentic state was a quest to create proxies of his own. Why is Milgram's son green? The boy represents a thing made by Dr. Milgram and obedient to his will. The boy then is a symbol for the life of Milgram's research. In short, in order to study something monstrous, Milgram created proxy monsters.
This is a beautifully told story. A longer review might explore the mass-media themes throughout the narrative. Specifically the way that television represents and then creates reality is key. Finally, to promote further intimacy between you and your own television, this film is now available on Netflix.