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Yale University, 1961. Stanley Milgram designs a psychology experiment in which people think they’re delivering electric shocks to an affable stranger strapped into a chair in another room. Subjects are told it’s about memory, but the experiment is really about conformity, conscience, and free will. Milgram is trying to test people’s tendency to comply with authority. His controversial experiments and results hit a nerve, and got him accused of being a deceptive, manipulative monster.
Much like Mad Men and Masters of Sex, Experimenter is a stylish and engaging look at a fascinating period of American history. It features a strong cast including Winona Ryder (Black Swan), Peter Sarsgaard (Black Mass), Taryn Manning (TV series Orange is the New Black) and John Leguizamo (John Wick).
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I was already familiar with the experiments but, am really glad that a film has been made about them. It is important for people to understand that however moral and ethical we believe we are, there are much stronger forces that can make us behave in ways that we would have not considered possible (until it happens).
Over the decades, boys have been sent to fight in wars, believing (as they had always been taught) that it is wrong to kill but, right to obey authority. Can we really be surprised when those boys return as broken men, traumatised by what the situation they found themselves in has forced them to do and by what they have seen. They called it 'shellshock' in the first world war and they call it P.T.S.D now. But, if you multiply upwards many times, the minor distress suffered by a number of the people who participated in the obedience experiments, it makes it much easier to understand the terrible dilemmas when people have to do what they are told, even when they believe it is totally wrong. Of course, there were also the experiment participants who simply did what they were told without question and without any apparent concern about what they were doing - even more scary!
But, there was 2 big problems for Stanley Milgram, which the film clearly shows.
1) Were the experiments unethical? - In order to demonstrate clearly the extent to which we are brainwashed to obey authority, from an early age, he had to devise an experiment that deceived and manipulated people, at least a little. The people in the experiment could not be encouraged to defy authority in any way - they had to be encouraged to obey it, while still having the choice to say 'no'. Many people thought the experiment was cruel but, if it is so cruel, why are so many people forced to deal with far more emotionally painful dilemmas, every day? This was mild in comparison.
2) Who was going to fund Stanley's further research? The people in our society who have money and power (and therefore could have funded further research on this), generally also have a vested interest in making people obey and conform. I cannot think of anyone rich and powerful who has anything to gain from people becoming more self empowered and thinking for themselves. We call people who don't obey anarchists. We have been trained to believe that anarchy would lead to the destruction of 'society' and is a very bad thing indeed. After all, if people learn that they can disobey, they might just carry on disobeying, even when we want them to obey!
I felt that the results of the work were unfinished and therefore the film felt a bit incomplete. But, that is not a criticism - both were inevitable. Stanley Milgram's work needed to have continued so, that he could establish cause rather than just effect. Instead he went on to do other, much more trivial work - he stopped rocking the boat but, then he probably had to. He had a family to feed.
I see him as a sad character who died young, disappointed and disillusioned. He discovered something so important that it was potentially life changing for the human race. But, he was not able to see his work through to it's conclusion. I sincerely hope that one day, someone else is able to pick up where he left off and finish what he started.
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