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Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story

Magnolia Home Entertainment // PG-13 // January 5, 2016
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 5, 2016 | E-mail the Author
In 1961, Dr. Stanley Milgram, disturbed by the sense of compliancy that had seemingly overtaken Germany during World War II (and in particular, the trial of Nazi colonel Adolf Eichmann), launched what he called the "Behavioral Study of Obedience." In the experiment, subjects were brought into a room, where they and another person were designated "teacher" or "learner." Teachers were asked to read a list of word pairs out loud, and then quiz the learner, who sat in a separate room, on the pairs with a multiple-choice questionnaire. If the learner got the answer wrong, the teacher would press a button on a control panel, delivering an electric shock to the learner, shocks which started at mild and topped out at 450 volts. What the subjects did not know is that the learner was a hired hand, part of the experiment, and that the true focus of the study was whether or not the subject would keep administering the electric shocks (which were staged) even if the learner yelled, banged on the wall, objected to the experiment, or even went silent, as long as the person administering the test told them to continue.

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story is an intriguing biopic of Milgram, starting with the obedience study and continuing on through to Milgram's death. The film was written and directed by Michael Almareyda, whose angles the film toward two crucial ideas. The first concerns the scientific community's (and to a lesser extent, the public's) struggle to reconcile the way Milgram's work revealed a disturbing flaw or crack in human psychology with the reserved optimism that Milgram displayed in revealing it. Despite his somewhat detached and even edgy demeanor, Milgram defends his work, arguing that the point wasn't to emphasize or even exploit people's susceptibility, but to understand why that susceptibility exists, and even assist people in resisting. Secondly, Almareyda explores the difference between deception and illusion, a distinction presented not just as a criticism of Milgram's work, but also used as a stylistic device.

The contrast between Milgram the scientist and Milgram the man is illustrated through casting and performance. Peter Sarsgaard plays Milgram as a direct and calculated person, in a way that observes the subtle difference between being militant and being precise. He speaks with clarity and purpose but is far from impenetrable or unfriendly; it's rare to see a movie that spends so much time watching characters listening and thinking. When critics do touch a nerve, such as a moment where he laughs indignantly at the notion he "tortured" his subjects, Sarsgaard is able to convey more weight without grandstanding. The emotional restraint (but not repression) of Sarsgaard's work also lends itself to Almareyda's device of having Milgram speak directly to the audience. Thanks to the tone, it feels more logical than cute, and it allows Sarsgaard to explore his version of Milgram in a unique way, remaining in character even as he breaks the fourth wall. Milgram's demeanor is balanced out by Winona Ryder as his wife, Sasha Menkin Milgram. Sasha is equally thoughtful, genuinely fascinated when Stanley explains an idea or sentiment, but is less reserved, full of humor and warmth that illuminate those qualities in Milgram. Their relationship is subtle but wonderful, a beating heart inside a somewhat technical movie, and its presence serves as a reminder of Milgram's normalcy, a reassurance that his mechanical curiosity is not sociopathic.

The idea of deception versus illusion is raised midway through the film by one of Milgram's students at Harvard. Throughout the film, Almareyda uses a number of devices, including the fourth-wall breaks, to explore the difference. In a number of sequences, there is no set or location, but rear projection photos of period locations. At one point, we are shown an experiment Milgram cites as important, and he notes in his voice-over that we're seeing a recreation. Milgram's colleague, conducting the experiment, gets the rear projection treatment, but the reverse angle, of the subjects participating in the experiment, is presented like an excerpt from documentary footage. Late in the film, a cheesy TV movie of Milgram's experiment is made, starring William Shatner (Kellan Lutz) and Ossie Davis (Dennis Haysbert), which upsets him due to its factual inaccuracies. What's fascinating is that Almareyda's constant reminders that the movie isn't real don't affect the tension of seeing various volunteers (including Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, and Anton Yelchin) being tested. In this way, the film itself explores the difference: ignoring the fictionalization of the story would be a deception, but to engage it acknowledges the illusion. (To really stretch, film itself arguably shares a common element with Milgram's work: conveying a human emotion in order to see how another human reacts. The only difference is, we know movies aren't real.)

In addition to the obedience experiment, the film covers four or five of Milgram's other little tests, which shy away from ethical concerns but are nonetheless fascinating, explained clearly by Sarsgaard and presented with visual efficiency. In a way, Experimenter invites the audience to participate in Milgram's work; while the movie can't be truly interactive, demonstration of his ideas still manages to touch on and stir up some of the same reactions. At its best, Experimenter quietly prompts viewers to confirm or uproot their biases, asks them to consider what they believe constitutes the social agreement that they engage in with others, or just points out something as simple as how much society at large has in common. On the surface, Almareyda skillfully translates Milgram's life into something cinematic, yet does so without losing the humanity of the man and his work, creating a film that is not just a factual or stylistic triumph, but a symbolic one as well.

The Blu-ray
Experimenter arrives on Blu-ray with the same artwork as the poster, an oddly intriguing photograph of Sarsgaard and Ryder sitting at the electric shock machine. There is something about the clean simplicity and slightly mundane nature of the colors (white, a light but not sharp red, and the gray-blue of the experiment's room at Yale) that fits the film's tone. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-ray case (the kind with holes punched in it), and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
I first saw Experimenter a month ago on a DVD screener, so I was looking forward to revisiting this modest but visually interesting film in HD. Sadly, this Blu-ray edition from magnolia is a bit of a bummer. Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC, the transfer is plagued by fairly severe banding issues from the very first shot, and further banding and light artifacts can be glimpsed subtly crawling around in the shadows throughout. Detail is good, especially in close-ups, but there is a sense that wider shots are missing some of the finer elements of texture and sharpness that ought to be present in the film's digital photography. Colors have a muted look that is clearly intentional. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that is devoted mostly to the music and capturing the claustrophobia of the room in which the experiments take place, as 90% of Experimenter is dialogue scenes, often delivered directly to camera. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish and French subtitles are also included.

The Extras
Three disappointingly brief featurettes are included. "The Making of Experimenter" (5:51) is a general overview of production, with the cast and crew talking a bit about their characters. Gains a little traction in that this is a true story, and even the actors playing fictionalized characters consider them more symbolically or through their place in the script. "Understanding Stanley Milgram: An Interview with Joel Milgram" (5:33) is a brief discussion with Stanley's brother, who expresses his feeling that Almareyda captured something crucial about Stanley (his refusal to judge his subjects, and his frustration with the way the experiments were criticized as being immoral). Finally, "Designing Experimenter" (5:10) peeks a bit into the look of the movie, in terms of both matching the period and also some of the movie's stylistic flourishes, particularly the rear projection. A shame that Almareyda, Sarsgaard, and Ryder couldn't have been brought in for a commentary.

Trailers for Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine, Best of Enemies, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, Sunshine Superman, and promos for Chideo and axstv play before the main menu, and are accessible under the special features menu. No trailer for Experimenter is included.

Understated but not dry, detailed but not lifeless, Experimenter is one of 2015's underseen gems, featuring inspired direction by Michael Almareyda and excellent lead performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, which both serve as a great look at Milgram's work. Disappointingly, magnolia's Blu-ray struggles to deliver on the PQ front, and the extras are underwhelming, but the film comes highly recommended just the same.

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