Experimenter full movie review - Well-made semi-documentary about Milgram's famous obedience experiments.
This semi-documentary about Milgram's famous obedience experiments succeeds very well in its prime purpose to show the average layman what these experiments were all about and how they were actually performed.
We see it all happening with our own eyes, in a clean laboratory-like environment with tape recorders all around, and witnesses (sometimes behind glass, other times in plain view) who record everything noteworthy as inherent part of the proceedings. When behind glass they proved very useful to throw some comments in our direction. On average, a consistent 65% of volunteers went to the end with lethal voltages administered, in spite of cries of pain and other alarming noises from the receiving side. These experiments are repeated with hundreds of volunteers of various backgrounds, races and sexes. Actual numbers may vary, but the 65% rule of thumb remains unchallenged.
As a side benefit, Milgram's family life is included too. We see how he met his wife, and we see two children appear later on. The role of his wife is to add some elements potentially considered by the ideal viewer, like how women would behave in these experiments. After this suggestion is honored we see that it really makes no difference in the statistical outcome. The participation of his wife may attract people who avoid boring documentaries as a rule, and I think that it was a good idea to give her a visible role in the script to make it acceptable for a broader audience.
Also adding a bit to the context where the above happened, is that we see fragments of Eichmann's trial shown on TV, that being a contemporary issue at the time (1961). We see and hear part of Eichmann's statement where he explicitly says that he was only following orders, and that everything he did was backed by his superiors. The link is obvious, and it may explain a lot of the hoopla around the publication of Milgram's experiments.
Main protagonists in the experiment in the form of a role play are a "pupil" and a "teacher", the latter asking questions and punishing each wrong answer with electric shocks of increasing strength. Unnoticed by the teacher is that the pupil role is in fact played by a tape recorder, producing the actual cries of pain and requests for help. We also see that teacher and pupil shake hands afterwards, demonstrating that no one was actually severely wounded in the proceedings. The teacher assumes that the real purpose of the experiment lies in studying the pupil who has to learn under duress. But we know that the teacher actually has the main role in the play, while finding out how far someone will go in administering pain to the pupil on every wrong answer. The real pressure is actually coming from the laboratory-coated authority figure behind the teacher's back, who states to assume all responsibility and insists that the experiment is completed in full.
At first I was wondering about the many scenes where Milgram speaks directly to us, the viewers, even during a social visit to a colleague (with respective wives), where he detaches himself from the conversation every now and then to make a point directly to us. It took some time to get used to this approach. In hindsight I prefer it very much above the traditional wise-crack voice-over that has become a nuisance in almost any documentary. There were two instances where Milgram was followed by an elephant while he spoke to us, peculiarly unnoticed by the others who walked around. I assume it refers to the proverbial "while elephant in the room", something that will be missed by viewers who are not well versed in the English language. Anyway, we get ample chance to hear Milgram explain that he himself was surprised by the results.
The dramatized semi-documentary format serves its purpose, and succeeds very well in providing an overview of all arguments pro and con about these experiments, especially the controversial and thought provoking ones. Precisely this aspect is very important in my opinion, as it prevents our own objections from becoming manifest, most of these caused by lack of knowledge about the real circumstances and the real objectives of Milgram's experiments. As an illustration, we see other psychological experiments carried out, like people within a crowd staring above while we observe most bystanders following the example in spite of nothing interesting to see. We see another experiment in an elevator, where people feel uneasy when all others look in an opposite direction, and we see them inventing excuses to change their position to comply with the rest. On the other hand, some of the experiments failed in spite of their good intentions. As mentioned by Milgram himself on one occasion "Not all my ideas are brilliant". Nevertheless, the other experiments shown were all very interesting and new to me, but none was world shaking and none would ever arouse the level of controversy that his famous obedience experiments did.