Film Reviews

MISE EN SEAN – <i>The Stanford Prison Experiment</i> (2015)

MISE EN SEAN – The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

Sean Hanson

August 3rd, 2015


Barely ten minutes into The Stanford Prison Experiment, as college students pretending to be prison guards strip-search and delouse a college student pretending to be an inmate, I thought about how quickly play-wrestling with my childhood best friend would turn into violent struggles for dominance as our latent resentments took the wheel. Inmate 8612 (Ezra Miller) doesn’t think his guards should take the situation so seriously, his guards don’t think he’s taking it seriously enough, and all four of them behave accordingly. It’s a great scene, one built on astute writing and note-perfect performances, and it sets the tone for the film.

In Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 “experiment” — really, as multiple characters point out, in the absence of a hypothesis or an independent variable, it’s more of a simulation — 24 college students were randomly assigned to play inmates or guards in a mock prison fashioned out of vacant offices in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building. They settled into their roles quicker than anyone could have imagined … and, in the case of some of the guards, a little too comfortably. His simulation had little to say about actual life in prison, which is typically more structured or bureaucratic, or prison guards, who are typically governed by rules, but it had a great deal more to say about about a common capacity for sadism and the perils of obedience in what Zimbardo has since described as “total situations,” like Auschwitz or Abu Ghraib.

This film has at least as much to say about the experiment itself and its architect. As played by Billy Crudup, Zimbardo is sometimes likable, sometimes smug; patronizing towards his former student and future spouse, Dr. Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby), even has he values her opinion; defensive when anyone questions his wisdom; and a little too fascinated by his simulation, a little too reticent to interfere, watching brutalities unfold on his CCTV monitor and doing little to stop them. Within his simulation, he appoints himself superintendent of the prison, a role he also inhabits a little too comfortably. Late in the film, he offers pathetic rationalizations for his involvement, just as the cruelest of the guards writes off his own abuses as a byproduct of role-playing.

Like Stanley Milgram or Harry and Margaret Harlow, Zimbardo makes for an easy villain in bad-science narratives. Is it surprising, then, that Zimbardo both participated in the film’s production of the film, feeding transcripts of his tapes to screenwriter Tim Talbott, or that he has little but praise for the film that mostly villainizes him? Zimbardo’s only complaint is that the film downplays Maslach’s efforts to end the simulation, instead giving him most of the credit for pulling the plug. The results of the initial experiment, which were never published in a peer-reviewed journal and have never been successfully replicated, were more poetry than science, illustrating some universal truths even as it’s impossible to fully apply those truths to any particular institution, but Zimbardo’s behavior during the experiment and his response to the film prove their validity nonetheless.

Forty years later, it’s clear that he’s a man who’s still smug, still a little less than credible, still capitalizing on his dubious achievement, and still rationalizing his own behavior. But it’s also clear that Zimbardo accepts the blame for what happened and this film is something like a bid for absolution for a man who once denied volunteer participants in a psychological study their freedom because he fell into his dual roles without hesitation. In its twin narrative strands, giving equal weight to drama within the prison and behind the scenes, The Stanford Prison Experiment explores these paradoxes and rationalizations with the same kind of chilling ambivalence that fueled The Act of Killing. At the end, a title card tells us Zimbardo’s team found no long-term psychological damage among the participants. It’s worth considering how such a carefully worded disclaimer might roll up a lot of the film’s themes and concerns into a single sentence.

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, cinematographer Jas Shelton, and a cast of young De Niros work overtime to make this dramatization as documentary-like as possible. Unlike the two previous films based on Zimbardo’s simulation — the 2001 German thriller Das Experiment and its 2010 remake, both of which were actually adapted from a novel that juiced up the story with added violence, archetypical characters, and crowd-pleasing plot twists — The Stanford Prison Experiment benefits from a flat, muted aesthetic, naturalistic acting, and violence that is mostly psychological … and, by extension, more effective. We might cheer when the worst of the guards gets his comeuppance in Das Experiment, but as this film observes, there are no bad guys in the Stanford County Jail, just men trapped without a compass and wandering deeper into the darkest reaches of the land of play-pretend.

The Stanford Prison Experiment continues its run at the Bijou Metro. Click here for showtimes.

Sean Hanson is a Eugene film critic whose work has been published by Something Awful and Front Row Central. Mise en Sean, despite being a terrible pun, is an irregular column in which he provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

One Comment

  1. Frank says:

    I was very disappointed to miss the showing at the Bijou, when my wife didn’t want to go. We live near Florence, 70 miles from the Bijou and I rarely go to movies, almost never go alone. I tried to see it in Portland as well, with a fellow prison industrial-complex researcher, activist, taxpayer and prisoner advocate. It was the day of the Sanders rally, but he wasn’t up for it either.

    I was similarly involved in social psychology and prison reform when the experiment was done. Zimbardo presented his results at a Humanistic Psychology Association conference in San Francisco and got into a rather acerbic discussion with Ned Opton, who taught psychology and was an assistant dean at the Wright Institute, in Berkeley. I vocally sided with Opton’s viewpoint, though Zimbardo commented afterward that he thought I should have agreed with him. In the middle of writing this feedback, I was actually prompted to share a phone call with Opton.

    I actually presented with Craig Haney, then one of two Stanford graduate students to whom Zimbardo gave co-investigator credit for the experiment, when Zimbardo couldn’t be there to discuss the film at Sonoma State University.

    I’ll have to see it somewhere, perhaps on Netflix, as it was a remarkable experiment, still allowable in the days when actual prisoners were used as low-paid test subjects (see Jessica Mitford’s “Kind and Usual Punishment,” especially the chapter, “Cheaper than Chimpanzees”), and subjects/participants in experiments did not have the (sometimes overzealous) protections which are now standard in the field.

    The thing I loved most about the experiment, was that the “guards” acted like guards, and the “prisoners” like prisoners, except for one lone student who said he wanted out, that it wasn’t real after all, and very clearly pointed out that they could not keep him there.

    If only there were more like him, then and now.

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