The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, dramatizes the infamous 1971 simulation led by Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), a psychologist employed by Stanford University. The goal of the study is to document the effects prisons can have in human behavior. The subjects are male college students, randomly determined by a coin toss to either be a prisoner or a guard, and the experiment is planned to last between seven to fourteen days. The study lasted only five days.

Note that I did not—and will not—use the word “experiment.” This is because I do not consider Zimbardo’s study to be one given that it is flawed from a scientific perspective. For instance, as one character keenly points out in the film, there seems to be a lack of a control group, a requisite element in most experiments because it determines whether the dependent variable, an effect (or effects) that can be observed, truly arise due to the introduction of an independent variable—a factor (or factors) that can be added, removed, or manipulated by the persons conducting the study.

The film is wonderfully acted by everyone involved. The collective performance is strong and so it is relatively easy to invest into each group’s realities—those participating in the study, those conducting the study, and those outside of it—even though the entire situation is far from pleasant. Particular standouts are Michael Angarano, embodying a guard who tries to personify John Wayne’s toughness, and Ezra Miller, embodying a prisoner consistently pushed to the edge of breakdown. There is confidence in their performances that it is near impossible to look away when they are on screen together.

There is great control from behind the camera. The director utilizes close-ups as a way to invade someone’s personal space. Pay close attention to scenes when a guard verbally assaults a prisoner to the point where we begin to suspect that physical violence can erupt at any second. As the intensity of the confrontation increases, the distance between the camera and its subjects decreases. We are literally in the moment as a guard strips away a prisoner’s remaining humanity and what is put inside that prisoner is fear, a heavy sense of powerlessness, and shame.

But the picture is not without areas that need improvement. For example, although it is obvious why the Crudup and Olivia Thirlby scenes are necessary to the material, both playing a couple with varying degrees of empathy and ethics, their exchanges do not mean more than what they are supposed to symbolize or represent as scholars. I wanted to know more about their personal lives. At the end of the film, a subtitle notes that the two married a year after the so-called experiment and are still together today. But I ask why we should care since the material does not provide enough details outside of their professional lives. More specifically, how can Thirlby’s character, who is a psychologist herself, still choose to be with Zimbardo after seeing what he is capable of?

Nevertheless, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” written by Tim Talbott, is absorbing and at times thought-provoking. Viewers who have taken psychology courses, like myself, will be very familiar with the study but there are enough details here that are specific and surprising. On the other hand, audiences not familiar with the “experiment” are likely to gape in awe, wondering if such a study was really allowed to happen.

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