Frequent readers of this blog undoubtedly know my feelings on the biopic genre of film, how it has stagnated into a state of formula that tries to force the life story of every individual with the least amount of public notoriety into the mold of a three act structure, whether the story fits that inspirational model or not. Consequently, good biopics are hard to find these days, and the ones that do work are the ones that are more about specific events than the emotional journeys of the people who shaped them. Experimenter is a great example of a step in that direction. It admittedly is subject to some pitfalls of its genre, but this is a film that knows where the heart of its story resides and isn’t afraid to defy convention to show it to us.
Experimenter is the story of the famous obedience experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram (an appropriately clinical Peter Sarsgaard). The goal of the experiment was to determine to what extent subjects would act in deference to a perceived authority, administering what they believed to be increasing electric shocks to a fellow test subject (in reality an actor who was in on the experiment) at the behest of an insistent official. The shocks were not real, but the ethics of the psychological impact on the test subject have been debated to this day, though the study’s findings about the pliability of human will are also relevantly discussed with just as much fervor.
What the film does right is that it is primarily about the tests themselves and about the impact of those tests in the following decades. The first act is almost entirely within the testing room, and we see test subjects react in a multitude of ways, yet almost always they end up giving the maximum voltage shock to their victim at the behest of the experimenter. A central question that the narrative poses is what the line is between our self-perception and what our reality actually is: how far would any of us actually go to remain deferent to authority and how much of our individuality is a lie? A fascinating technique the film uses to communicate this non-verbally is to have Milgram monologue directly into the camera and to set the film against obviously artificial backdrops, using the obvious fiction of cinema to emphasize the surreality of the story without undermining the truth of the study it presents.
There are moments, however, where the film does stumble into portraying the drama of Milgram’s personal life, and those attempts feel token, feeble, and unwelcome. They don’t arise often and are edited in such a way as to suggest that director Michael Almereyda knows that these moments are a distraction and wants to get them out of the way as soon as possible. It’s largely unnecessary to go through a checklist of Milgram’s other notable experiments or look in on how his marriage developed over the years, yet here we are, going through the motions of a standard biopic when both the film and, hopefully, its audience are much more interested in the man’s work than the irrelevant parts of his life.
I do want to emphasize, though, that these moments are minimized and are more likely included because of a producer’s demand than the director’s vision. When taken as a whole, Experimenter won’t likely blow anyone’s mind, but it is an entertaining and highly stylized look at one of the most important social experiments of the twentieth century, a glimpse into the human mind at the conscious mechanisms that allowed events such as the Holocaust to happen. And it works primarily because it does not attempt to portray Milgram as a hero on a journey; he’s just a man who conducted an important and controversial experiment, and the drama of that can speak for itself.