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What would you do if you were given authority over others and no one was monitoring your actions? Would you apply the golden rule? Of course you would, unless you had a hidden axe to grind and more power than you ever imagined you could have. Such is the case when a simulated prison experiment becomes a runaway train and no one seems to be at the controls which happened at Stanford University in 1971.

Movie Review: ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ With Billy Crudup and Ezra Miller

Michael Angarano, 'The Stanford Prison Experiment,,'
Michael Angarano (back to the camera and ensemble cast), in ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment.’ Photo from the film.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a brilliant film for its breadth of complexity in elucidating the 1971 prison experiment conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. Filmmakers dare to reveal the naked facts of the experiment without fictionalizing them. They chronologically present events in the form of a docudrama. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, written by Tim Talbott (his script used archival film and audio clips for a good deal of the dialogue), with Dr. Philip Zimbardo consulting, The Stanford Prison Experiment is from first to last an intense, unsettling view of human psychological behavior in an absence of moral/ethical social constructs to guide it.

Using precise editing, tight close-ups, and starkly appropriate lighting (dim for the researchers’ observation scenes, bright for the prisoner-guard encounters), and incisive direction of the exceptional cast, filmmakers recreate a stifling, alienating, and frightening prison environment without any semblance of just or humane controls. Alvarez and Talbott mostly adhering to the details of the experiment as it occurred, reveal how this repulsive and oppressive environment swiftly came about within hours.

Michael Angarano, 'Stanford Prison Experiment'
Michael Angarano and ensemble cast in ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment,’ directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Photo from the film.

Zimbardo (an exceptional performance by Billy Crudup who grows increasingly confused, cold-hearted, and obsessive), and assistants select twenty-four middle class, white college student participants who answered a  carrot – stick advertisement offering a daily remuneration of $15.00 (almost $100 equivalent today), for two weeks with few specific details about being part of a experiment in a simulated prison.

Filmmakers elucidate the selection process: those deemed psychologically fit, normal (in 1970s standards), non-suicidal individuals, were selected and then asked whether they preferred to be a guard or a prisoner. One (Ezra Miller gives a stirring, mysterious, and edgy portrayal as the rebellious and confrontational prisoner), ended up being selected on a coin toss. With just the bare minimum of directions to the selected guards not to be physically violent with the prisoners, like spinning tops, Zimbardo (director of the research), plays the role of the prison superintendent who sets the participants revolving on their merry way to do as they will.

That is exactly what the guards do, led by an ornery, participant guard who appoints himself to be “like Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke.” Michael Angarano plays the guard named “John Wayne” in a terrific portrayal of a Jekyll/Hyde personality and unpredictably frightening individual. Of course, this guard belies the name of John Wayne because he is like the actor only in his “masculine” swagger. He is the antithesis of a hero and loathsome as he dons a Southern accent and conjures up all the inherent bigotry, meanness, and anti-Christian fascism he can to bully the prisoners to obey whatever unreasonable action he commands.

The filmmakers subtly indicate at the end of the film when these individuals are out of their roles as guards and prisoners and reassessing the experiment, that this individual is the type to be vulnerable and afraid-a pure example of the banality of evil. But allow him to play a role and hide behind the mask of a character in a film, he then is capable of all manner of reprehensible and wicked actions toward those “beneath” him.

'The Stanford Prison Experiment,' Tim Talbott, Kyle Patrick Alvarez
‘The Stanford Prison Experiment,’ directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, written by Tim Talbott. Photo courtesy of the film.

The film shows how the situation. which Zimbardo watches via camera in a darkened research “control room,” escalates into chaos and becomes a travesty of justice perpetrated by the overweening, demeaning behaviors of the prison guards. The guards have been psychologically encouraged by Zimbardo, who feminizes the prisoners by having them wear sack dresses, and dehumanizes them only allowing them to be referred to by numbers as they are forced to address each of the guards with the great respect due a military officer. The guards, who are their student equals, deride them and speak to them like they are worthless non beings.

These extraordinary conditions essentially win over the minds of 24 individuals who are “playing a part,” in the basement of the Stanford psychology building converted to appear prison-like. Under the pressure of one “well-meaning,” hyper-cruel guard who influences the others, the unconscionable happens. Sadism and masochism blossom like weird devouring plants and eat alive the goodness in the souls of the perpetrators and victims who gradually begin to morph into other identities. These different identities manifest terrifying qualities; they slowly become the abused and the abusers, though nothing “physical” has yet taken place. Zimbardo (Crudup is thoroughly engrossing as he just stays clear of the mad researcher trope), is incredibly pleased. These initial results amaze him because he had planned to be bored watching the routines of model prisoners and guards for two weeks. He is enthralled and overjoyed that his assumptions about institutions may be realized after all.

'The Stanford Prison Experiment,' Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Tim Talbott
‘The Stanford Prison Experiment,’ directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez and written by Tim Talbott. Photo courtesy of the film.

It is on the third day that there is the faintest of echoing explosions that grow louder, though none can hear the reverberations, not even Zimbardo. He, the prisoners, and the guards are going “native.” They are becoming so over-committed to the intricacies of what is transpiring that they have embodied their roles and cannot extricate themselves. It is an invisible dynamic and they are unaware of it, as they try to adjust and get to the next hour. With their inability to protest or awaken from the gradual shifting that has occurred, it is as if the experiment has developed an ethos all its own and they must play events out to the bitter end with no recourse. Like a vividly appearing then evanescent wicked creature, the experiment forces the prisoners to be powerless victims who do not stand up for one another, and it stirs the guards to gyrate past the limits of reason.

None, least of all Zimbardo, questions the prison culture they all have bled their souls into except prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller). For the first few days, holding in his mind that it is an “experiment,” he has been confrontational and he challenges the guards’ cruel, unjust actions, though he complies with their directives sullenly. However, he reaches his breaking point, sans “masculine” ego. He acknowledges that he is being emotionally hurt and he admits to Zimbardo that the guards and the experiment are “messing with his head” and causing him damage. Ezra Miller is totally convincing. We believe prisoner 8612 and have empathy for him. We also wonder why no one else does. It is amazing how no one, least of all his fellow prisoners, attempts to help or give him moral support. If morality was present, they would, but the prison is short on morality.

Ezra Miller, 'The Stanford Prison Experiment'
Ezra Miller in ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment.’ Photo courtesy of the film.

As truthful and desperate as prisoner 8612 is, Zimbardo doesn’t believe him. The next sequence of events initiates a turning point. Though Zimbardo tells 8612 he will encourage the guards to “let up” on him if he becomes a “snitch,” in a later discussion with his colleagues, we understand that Zimbardo has no intention of reprimanding the guards. Believing the experiment to be “real,” 8612 never goes to Zimbardo with information; he has a breakdown.

It is clear that Zimbardo’s judgment and objectivity have been undermined by the same fear and intractability that has engulfed the participants to create an oppressive prison culture. Zimbardo, the ethical, moral, empathetic researcher has disappeared. Contrary to good research protocol, he has completely “gone native” and become the willing prison superintendent over this runaway band of sadists and victims. He sides with and is to a great extent controlled by the guards. With a sick, voyeuristic fascination he wants to “see what happens next,” and not let anyone leave so they can play out the depths of their own cruelty and powerlessness in the name of science.

Billy Crudup, 'The Stanford Prison Experiment'
Billy Crudup in ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment.’ Photo courtesy of the film.

Where is Zimbardo’s conscience and what will it take for the director of this experiment (Zimbardo), to overthrow the prison superintendent (Zimbardo), and conclude this evil morality play that he has set in motion? Filmmakers have created enough suspense so that it is a relief that two outside individuals with objectivity have the courage to speak up and confront Zimbardo. When Zimbardo comes to his senses, we are almost as shocked as he is. Like the prisoners and the guards, we have become inured to watching the prison simulation unfold with no moral, ethical, empathetic voice shouting out, “Enough!” So when the alarm sounds, we are stunned. Then we are relieved and grateful.

Though filmmakers didn’t have to approach the film this way, it is to their credit that The Stanford Prison Experiment affirms great truths which may or may not be generalizable to American culture in 1971, and to human nature for all time. The film shows what many of us who have read history know about oppression, tyranny and injustice. Under certain circumstances, when there are no external ethical/moral constructs of right and wrong or enforcement to prevent injury, people may harm others to the point of emotional, psychological and physical destruction. Then afterwards they justify their behaviors using constructs that they create which gain a life of their own.

What Alvarez and writer Talbott reveal that is tragic, concerns institutions/frameworks (in this case the simulated prison), which operate under inverted social norms. The devolution of human behavior is especially egregious under corrupt systems. For example, within a corrupt institution, what the external society deems bad is good; what the culture identifies as injustice, the institutional culture deems justice; what society knows to be wrong in a corrupt system is justified as right. Within a system of inverted norms, oppression is confused with power, aggression and violence are confused with control, and dominance is justified as a great “good” for the group.

This corruption is mythic and annihilating. Cultures and people (review the genocides in the recent last century during WWII and afterward), have been laid to waste as a result. Such corruption that leads to oppression becomes a runaway train under the veil of secrecy and the darkness of fear. Unless an alarm is sounded from a watchtower, the situation will exceed all expectations of evil. What would have happened if the “Stanford Prison Experiment” had not been stopped after six days? For evil to flourish, good people say and do nothing.

All these themes and many more are at the heart of this film which cannot be easily set aside as “entertainment” though it is vastly entertaining. See it to be entertained, but more importantly, see it and reflect about how our institutions create their own cultures that are efficient and effective because there are watchtowers and people willing to blow the whistle if corruption occurs. It is when institutions are systemically corrupt without whistleblowers, that we all are in jeopardy.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.

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