dir. Michael Almereyda
written by: Michael Almereyda
starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan
3 out of 4 stars
A bachelor’s degree in psychology has not proven particularly useful to me. I abandoned desire to go further into the education system for psych or social work; I wound up in tech, as all professionally lost boys in Seattle might venture. I do have plenty of knowledge, and 2015 has now dramatized two notable, controversial experiments in psychological history. Unfortunately, no mastermind has managed to bring Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris selective attention test to the big screen, but we as a society aren’t ready for that masterpiece. Instead, we have more disturbing examples of studying the human condition, testing the ethical implications of testing the mind:
One of the most fun classes I was required to take as an undergrad was fondly referred to as “The Rat Lab”. Pending no aversion to rodents, the class was educational and fully interactive, training a common white rat to press a lever with increasing frequency over a semester in order to receive food pellets. Studying the effects of positive reinforcement on learning, some rats caught on, others did not. Much can be gained from studying animal cognition and behavior, particularly in mating scenarios (I’m a bowerbird in romance, golden eagle in lovemaking), but the crossover is limited. Human subjects are needed for a true test of the capabilities of the human mind, but ethics always seem to get in the way of science experiment. A man not unfamiliar with controversy surrounding his experiments was Stanley Milgram, best known for misleading participants into thinking they were testing subjects and delivering electric shocks upon incorrect answers; he was actually examining their willingness to follow orders to continue testing, unbeknownst to the participant an actor was faking the yells they hear. An ethical examination of scientific experimentation in modern society follows.
Peter Sarsgaard, showcasing Frank Underwood-style fourth wall breaking, plays Milgram, a descendant of Jewish Holocaust victims interested in why sentient beings can be drug into something as despicable as mass genocide. Along with wife Sasha (Winona Ryder, supportive with little else to add) and his research assistants, including the “test subject” James McDonough by comedian Jim Gaffigan, providing much needed light comedic breaks in an otherwise darkly humorous movie. Sarsgaard, menacingly voiced and authoritative in delivery, shines his brightest since Jarhead. Empathic to the plight of the antihero–he never seems to play anything else; Corey Stoll is taking those roles from him–Sarsgaard slides easily into a scientist aghast that the world is against an experiment so dear to his heart.
Ethical dilemmas plague his most notable experiment, and though he diverges into lesser known but equally intriguing work, his objective returns to human obedience continuously. Whether the unconvincing opposition to his experiments in cameos by Taryn Manning and John Leguizamo weren’t selling it (“You can deceive other people; just don’t deceive me.”), my 20/20 hindsight on the importance of this experiment, or my general adoration for a good antagonist, Milgram appears justified in his goals even if a little manipulative. Director and writer Michael Almereyda, adaptor of Ethan Hawke’s modernized Hamlet, further explores the tortured soul examining the mysteries haunting its past. Cleanly devised and executed, if feeling a bit like House of Cards in academia, his portrait of a man and a science is respectful but subjective. Avoiding clear consideration that Milgram was a man of science or a man with an agenda, Almereyda breaks with reality with increasing frequency later in the film, losing moderate cohesion but not detracting noticeably from the narrative. This man lived his life in service of the human mind, and despite what others thought, he has made his impact.