The controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram gets a biopic as polymorphous as one of his own research studies in “Experimenter,” a highly formal, always fascinating movie from writer-director Michael Almereyda, who here delivers his most fully realized effort in the 15 years since his modern-dress “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke. Almereyda conceives of Milgram’s life and work as a kind of constantly evolving theater piece and runs with the idea, resulting in a decidedly Brechtian bit of filmmaking that routinely breaks the fourth wall and employs other bits of theatrical artifice to tell its tale. Such old-school indie-art-movie quirks won’t be to everyone’s liking, but for those who imbibe, “Experimenter” offers a heady brew of theories about the essence of human nature, and a Peter Sarsgaard performance that catches Milgram in all his seductive, megalomaniacal brilliance.
Milgram made his name in the more permissive, laissez-faire era of university-sponsored scientific research previously explored in films like “Kinsey” (which co-starred Sarsgaard) and “Project Nim,” and it’s one of “Experimenter’s” throughlines that, just because Milgram may have employed some scientifically questionable methods, that doesn’t invalidate the merit of his data. When the movie opens in August 1961, the Yale-based Milgram is just embarking on his most famous/infamous study, the “Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures,” in which two randomly selected test subjects are assigned the respective roles of “Teacher” and “Learner,” with Teacher instructed to ask Learner (situated in an adjacent room) a series of multiple-choice questions.
If and when Learner answers incorrectly, Teacher is to administer a remote-controlled electric shock, the severity of which would increase with each subsequent wrong answer. The catch: Unbeknownst to Teacher, Learner is actually a member of Milgram’s lab team, cued to answer questions incorrectly on purpose and to shout in pain upon receipt of each successive “shock” (when, in fact, no actual shocks are being delivered).
An American-born Jew of Romanian-Hugarian extraction, Milgram was obsessed by the origins of genocide and the human capacity to rationalize violent behavior, and as Adolph Eichmann stood trial in Israel and Hannah Arendt wrote about “the banality of evil” in the pages of the New Yorker, Milgram was busily putting theory into practice, watching with a mix of fascination and horror as some two-thirds of his nearly 800 test subjects administered the full range of electric shocks. The subjects believed they had no other choice but to obey the directives of Milgram’s lab assistants, that they were therefore “just following orders” — a condition Milgram would go on to term “the agentic state.”
Milgram himself watched these experiments through a two-way mirror, not unlike a cinema spectator. And, except for a few brief flashbacks detailing Milgram’s courtship of his wife, Sasha (Winona Ryder), the first 30 minutes of “Experimenter” afford us the same perspective, as one guinea pig after the next (played by a who’s-who of character actors including John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin and Anthony Edwards) climb into Milgram’s hot seat. Because Almereyda makes us complicit to all the behind-the-scenes illusion, these scenes take on a certain grim hilarity, as the test subjects react (or don’t) to the increasingly frantic cries of Milgram’s resident Learner, the affable accountant Jim McDonough (Jim Gaffigan). But even here, “Experimenter” implicitly asks us to consider the far-reaching implications of Milgram’s scenario, and how, in the position of Teacher, we ourselves would respond.
When “Experimenter” broadens its scope, it does so in an inventively stylized fashion that mixes real locations with rear projections (some static, some moving) and breakaway sets, and features Sarsgaard directly addressing the audience in character — even, at one point, breaking into an impromptu musical number. It’s a risky strategy that Almereyda — a formalist whose early films made extensive use of the arcane PXL Vision analog video format — pulls off deftly (with due credit to production designer Deana Sidney and cinematographer Ryan Samul), because it seems of a piece with Milgram’s own notion of himself and the way Sarsgaard plays him, as a kind of director for whom all the world was a potential stage.
On several occasions, Almereyda even has Sarsgaard trailed onscreen by a full-size adult elephant — the proverbial one “in the room” that Milgram was prodding at in much of his research. Meanwhile, for the good doctor himself, the obedience experiments would become something of a monkey on his back — an early success that he could never quite eclipse, a Wellesian figure forever dwelling in the shadow of his “Citizen Kane.”
Almereyda’s dense, deeply researched yet succinct script confidently winds its way through Milgram’s publication of his theories (in the 1974 book “Obedience to Authority”), his overnight celebrity, the ensuing accusations of ethical impropriety, and the general unwillingness of people to believe what Milgram was saying: that most people, relieved of direct responsibility for their own actions, might be capable of almost any atrocity. A markedly more serious film about science and the politics of science than either “The Theory of Everything” or “The Imitation Game,” “Experimenter” goes on, in its final stretch, to touch on Milgram’s subsequent, equally groundbreaking studies, including the Harvard-based “small world” experiment, which first postulated the theory now known as “six degrees of separation.”
Befitting the movie’s many layers of artifice and self-reflexivity, Milgram (who died of a heart attack in 1984) even lives to see his research dramatized as a 1976 network television movie, “The Tenth Level,” though the scene in Almereyda’s film devoted to its making (with Dennis Haysbert and Kellan Lutz in ill-cast cameos as stars Ossie Davis and William Shatner) is one of the few that seems completely tone-deaf.
Milgram lived for his work, and “Experimenter” is fundamentally an attempt to understand him through it. That means relatively little time devoted to Milgram’s personal life, but enough to know that he wasn’t an easy husband or father, and that Sasha (superbly played by Ryder) — a firm believer in her husband’s research — was willing to take him on his own terms. (In a touching coda, the real Sasha Milgram herself appears onscreen.) “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” Milgram proclaims more than once in “Experimenter,” quoting Kierkegaard. In looking back on Milgram and his experiments more than 50 years after the fact, Almereyda finds much that lingers and haunts. So, too, this movie, long after the lights have come up.