The Stanford Prison Experiment (EIFF, 2015)
June 20, 2015 Leave a comment
In 1971, an advert is placed in a local newspaper inviting would-be participants to screen for The Stanford Prison Experiment. Overseen by psychology professor Dr Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), the simulation sees successful candidates randomly assigned to one of two groups. The likes of Daniel (Ezra Miller), Jeff (Johnny Simmons) and Peter (Ty Sheridan) are arrested, interred and detained in a university corridor dressed to resemble a prison, while participants including Christopher (Michael Angarano) and Townshend (James Frecheville) are given sunglasses, truncheons and uniforms, and left in charge of the prisoners. However, as the prisoners, guards and Zimbardo himself (who assumes the role of warden) begin to lose objectivity, the validity of the experiment is brought into question.
One of the most infamous episodes in mainstream psychology (alongside the 1961 Milgram experiment), The Stanford Prison Experiment has had not only a huge impact on the discipline itself, necessitating large-scale ethical reformation, but also made a larger than usual impression on popular culture. There have been a number of attempts to either document or dramatise Philip Zimbardo’s procedures, but it has taken years for screenwriter Tim Talbot’s attempt to finally reconcile fact with fiction to reach the big screen. Ultimately directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, The Stanford Prison Experiment draws from Zimbardo’s book The Lazerus Effect and actual archive footage of the experiment itself, allowing for a reasonably accurate and apparently authentic depiction while also incorporating the sort of personal insights that make the experiment more accessible to layman audiences.
Opening with the production of the fateful newspaper article, The Stanford Prison Experiments introduces its characters through the extensive interview process. It’s makes for a surprisingly funny sequence, particularly for those familiar with what is to follow, and is a large part of what makes Alvarez’s film such a success. There is an edge and intensity to proceedings from the beginning, which builds throughout the experiment and bleeds out into the surrounding office space, but the director never loses sight of the absurdity of the situation. After all, what was once at the cutting edge of psychology is now mundane enough to feature on an episode of Big Brother, and while the film never compromises its historical context with such hindsight it’s inevitably a point of reference for the audience. In particular, scenes depicting a riot and an attempted prison break are unexpectedly playful, though this only makes the aggressive retaliation that follows all the more shocking.
Alvarez’s control over his film’s tone is astonishing, particularly in the way he builds tension through the most innocuous of situations. However, the achievement is not his alone, and the sheer subtlety of the changes in character dynamics are only possible because of the ensemble he has assembled — The Stanford Prison Experiment is a veritable who’s who of (male) American rising stars. Perhaps the most impressive of which are Angarano, who settles into his role as a prison guard with shocking speed and zeal, and Miller and Sheridan, whose prisoners take the majority of the abuse, at least to begin with. The young cast are essentially delivering duel performances, portraying personalities within personalities, and their commitment to their roles is remarkable. Naturally, given the subject matter and source material, the film is light on female actors, and Alvarez doesn’t feel the need to invent characters in the name of equality. That said, Olivia Thirlby does a terrific job as Zimbardo’s girlfriend and fellow psychologist Christina, ultimately playing a key role not just in the narrative but in history itself.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is an outstanding piece of work, doing full and fair justice to an equally amazing true story. Zimbardo’s simulation may have ultimately suffered from experimenter bias but there is no evidence that Alvarez’s film does so too — the psychologist may have been involved in the project, but if he has had any input into his portrayal it doesn’t show. After all, this isn’t a story of heroes and villains, prisoners and prison guards, it’s a showcase of the power of conformity and obedience. I really must insist that you join the queue.