Oct 16, 2015
Stanley Milgram was a social scientist, the son of Holocaust survivors, who was obsessed with answering the question that still plagues us to this day. How could the German people do what they did during the Nazi years? How can regular people be ready to commit atrocities just because someone with authority asks them to?
To find out, Milgram created a controversial test in which he asked some subjects, whom he called "teachers" to administer a questionnaire, and if their subjects ("learners") answered incorrectly, they were to give them electric shocks. To his surprise, about 65% of the teachers complied, even when they heard the learner behind the wall pleading to stop, screaming in pain or not responding anymore. He tricked the subjects into thinking that there was an actual person being electrocuted. Some were uncomfortable and they protested, but very few stopped doing it.
He is one of the most influential social psychologists in recent history. His experiments brought awareness to concepts like groupthink, mass obedience, and other issues that are of particular concern to modern man. We do not live anymore under omnipotent religions or princes. Modern man is supposed to have the individual agency to refuse. But Dr. Milgram's experiments revealed that complying is more common to human nature than rebelling. Our instinct to conform, to not rock the boat, to be accepted, is strong, and it can be abused by those in power, even if we don't live under totalitarian regimes.
Unfortunately, as fascinating as Milgram is, Almereyda's film does not live up to its subject. Almereyda uses an experimental approach himself, and the film is a visual essay rather than a conventional narrative film. Instead of dramatizing Milgram's story, Almereyda narrates it, which makes for a very stilted movie. Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) constantly breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience. Sarsgaard is a resourceful actor who tries his best to come alive as Dr. Milgram. I can see why he was cast, as he can be icily dispassionate, but I think he's not right for the role. On the other hand, he is saddled by the artificiality of the approach and does what he can with what little he is given to do.
Almereyda's unconventional execution reminded me of Il Divo, by Paolo Sorrentino, an essay-like character study of Giulio Andreotti, the former Prime Minister of Italy. Yet Sorrentino had resources at his disposal: a great cinematographer, spectacular locations and a grand sense of visual style. Under a clearly limited budget, Almereyda's chosen visual quirks look dreadful. They also seem arbitrary. Sometimes, he puts the actors in real locations that share the screen with black and white photographic backdrops. This could look good with a lot of digital enhancement, great cinematography and color correction. Done on the cheap, (bad lighting, terrible wigs) the film looks amateurish and these flourishes make little dramatic sense.
Most of the solid cast is wasted because they don't have much to do. Winona Ryder is self-conscious and twitchy as Milgram's wife. The actors who take part in the experiments are all terrific in very small parts: Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning, Jim Gaffigan and others. But that is because they have actions to perform. Still, they are too well known for their parts, and this also feels lopsided.
In this case, the experimenting should have been left to the characters on the screen. Nothing wrong with trying, but a dramatic narrative and a better sense of how to spend the production dollars could have brought Milgram's story to life much more effectively.