Experimenter

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Experimenter Movie Poster Image
Well-acted, thought-provoking drama about role of authority.
  • PG-13
  • 2015
  • 90 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Makes audiences think about the possible downsides to blind obedience -- and why it's important to check your moral compass before following orders.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Dr. Milgram and his staff are dedicated to finding out how people behave. Milgram is intelligent and curious and wants to make sense of horrible times when people failed to question authority. His wife, Sasha, is supportive, caring, and smart.

Violence

Disturbing scene of Stanley having a heart attack; subjects in the experiment are upset and uncomfortable when they believe they're shocking another person in the experiment.

Sex

An adult couple kisses passionately on a bed.

Language

One "f--k," plus "damn," "hell."

Consumerism

Coca-Cola.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink wine and cocktails at parties/a bar. Characters smoke cigarettes (accurate for the era).

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Experimenter is a serious biographical drama about legendary social scientist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), best known for his obedience experiments and the "six degrees of separation" theory. The movie deals with heavy subjects like the correlation between obedience and the inability to resist orders -- even immoral ones. Milgram's personal story also reveals his motivation for his experiments (the Holocaust) and his need to figure out why so many people carried out atrocities believing they were "just following orders." There are a couple of curse words (including one "f--k") and some passionate kissing, as well as social drinking and cigarette smoking -- as was more typical of the '60s and '70s. It's really the themes, more than any specific iffy content, that make this movie aimed at mature/academically inclined teens interested in discussing the experiments.

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What's the story?

EXPERIMENTER is the chronicle of world-renowned psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous series of social experiments, most notably his "obedience experiments" of the 1960s. While a young professor at Yale University, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) oversees an experiment for three years in which a subject is asked to play the role of "teacher" in an experiment about the possible benefits of consequences for learning. Each "teacher" is told punish the "learner" -- who's in the next room -- with an electric shock for each incorrect answer. In reality, the "learner" (Jim Gaffigan) is a collaborator in the experiment, which is actually focused on the teacher's behavior as he/she debates whether or not to shock the learner. Milgram, inspired by infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann's attitude toward his war crimes (i.e. he claimed to be following military orders he couldn't disobey), finds that 65 percent of the teachers continue to shock their learner without stopping -- obeying their instructions despite having the free will to walk away. The movie primarily deals with Milgram's professional life -- which includes a lot of criticism of his ethics -- but does include a bit about his personal life, especially about his courtship of Sasha (Winona Ryder), a former ballerina he meets on the way to a party.

Is it any good?

Sarsgaard shines in this unconventional biopic of controversial psychologist Stanley Milgram. EXPERIMENTER will make audiences think, squirm, and wonder whether they would have had the strength to question authority in these famous experiments. As famous actors pop up on screen to play the teachers in Milgram's experiments (Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning, etc.), it's clear that, despite discomfort, most people will do as they're told. But what if doing as you're told ends in someone else's pain? What if it's a direct order to hurt someone else?

Ryder and Sarsgaard have a believable chemistry, and Gaffigan is memorable as the learner who's supposedly being shocked in the experiments but is actually part of the staff. Milgram often breaks the fourth wall to discuss his life, put events in context, and even to complain. Sarsgaard's portrayal is compelling enough not to let this atypical narrative device fall flat or get cheesy. Talking to the camera genuinely works because Milgram is such a driven, interesting man with a fascinating reason to delve into the idea of obedience. His later coining of the "six degrees of separation" idea gets short shrift, but ultimately this is a finely acted and directed look at a scientist who changed the way we think about human behavior.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Experimenter's style of having the character address the audience directly. How do Stanley's monologues help audiences get to know him better? Is it effective?

  • How accurate do you think the movie is to who Milgram was as a person and how he lived his life? Why might filmmakers decide to make changes to real events?

  • What happens in the experiment? What does the experiment reveal about human behavior? Do you think you would have obeyed until the end or resisted the instructions?

  • Do you think Milgram's experiment was ethical? What are the correlations between blind obedience and atrocious behavior? When is it appropriate to disobey or resist authority?

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