By Daniel Barnes
*Opening tomorrow at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Now available to rent on VOD.
Peter Sarsgaard stars in this intriguing but paper-thin biopic as Dr. Stanley Milgram, the Yale scientist whose bold and ethically questionable experiments in compliance and authority painted a dark picture of human behavior. Milgram and his confederates fooled test subjects into thinking that they were administering increasingly powerful electric shocks to a fellow test subject, while an authority figure in a lab coat egged them on. His research showed that when relieved of any personal responsibility, two out of three people will theoretically torture someone to death, a “robotic impassivity” that Milgram argued was the fuel for Nazism and genocide. The opening half hour of The Experimenter is riveting stuff, as Almereyda shows us the experiment from the viewpoint of the subject, then methodically reveals the layers of artifice and manipulation and surveillance that made it work (Milgram controlled every aspect of the experiment, right down to the color of the lab coat). Once The Experimenter gets past those cameo-heavy scenes, however, it merely becomes a series of bullet points about Milgram’s life (sample narration: “Meanwhile, Obedience to Authority gets translated into eight languages, and nominated for a National Book Award.” Such insight!), and stylistic choices that felt fresh early on (e.g., straight-to-camera narration, rear projection, stage sets) get recycled to increasingly decomposing effect. The film works better when crafting its own experiments in social embarrassment, such as the scene where Milgram argues about his work with an uninformed woman and an Abe Lincoln impersonator, as opposed to the stuffy book report that dominates the final hour.