Yale University, 1961. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) designs a psychology experiment in which people think they’re delivering electric shocks to an affable stranger (Jim Gaffigan) strapped into a chair in another room.
Subjects are told it’s about memory, but the experiment is really about conformity, conscience, and free will. Milgram is trying to come to terms with the Holocaust and to test people’s tendency to comply with authority.
Milgram meets Sasha (Winona Ryder), a former dancer living in New York. Their courtship includes a visit to the Yale lab, where Milgram’s experiment has yielded disturbing results: 65 per cent of Milgram’s subjects deliver shocks that may be fatal, obeying polite commands from a lab-coated authority figure (John Palladino).
(Actors portraying subjects include Anthony Edwards, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin and Danny Abeckaser.)
Milgram is working at Harvard when his obedience findings are reported in The New York Times. He is accused of being deceptive, a manipulative monster. Sasha – now Mrs. Milgram – fortifies his sense of empathy and ethics, as does his colleague Paul Hollander (Edoardo Ballerini).
At Harvard, Milgram undertakes now-classic research into human behavior, including the “lost letter” technique for assessing public opinion, and the Small World social networking experiment, the basis for “six degrees of separation.”
But the obedience experiments threaten to overshadow all else. When Milgram barges into a classroom to announce that President Kennedy has been shot, students don’t believe him – his reputation for deception has eclipsed his credibility.
Milgram fails to get tenure at Harvard, but he moves on, accepting a professorship at the City University of New York, where he guides graduate students, treating the streets as a vast experimental laboratory. All the same, he’s compelled to return to his obedience work, re-igniting debate with his book, Obedience to Authority, an Experimental View, published in 1974.
Milgram goes on the talk-show circuit, and sees his experiments distorted in The Tenth Level, a made-for-TV movie starring William Shatner (Kellan Lutz) and Ossie Davis (Dennis Haysbert).
Although Milgram’s life is cut short by a heart condition, EXPERIMENTER’s tone is celebratory, and as playful and provocative as a Milgram experiment. A bold use of voice-over and rear-screen projections mirrors Milgram’s inner life and reflects his insights into human behavior, social structures, the interplay of reality and illusion.
What would you do? is an underlying question in major Milgram research. EXPERIMENTER aims to show how Milgram’s conscience and creative spirit continue to be resonant, poignant, and inspirational.
You could say we are puppets. But I believe that we are puppets with perception, with awareness. Sometimes we can see the strings. And perhaps our awareness is the first step in our liberation.