I’ve always been weirdly fascinated with the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment ever since I first heard about it. This was during the Iraq war when the revelations came out of Abu Ghraib prison that seemingly unassuming American men and women in uniform had become sadistic tormenters of the prisoners held there.
As the country struggled to understand how such monstrous behavior could come from seemingly normal soldiers, the work of psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo was used as a possible explanation.
In 1971, while working at Stanford University, Zimbardo recruited 24 male students to participate in an earnestly conceived, poorly executed experiment to better understand the effects of incarceration on both prisoners and guards.
The roles of prisoners and guards were determined by a coin flip and it took a shockingly short amount of time for things to start to get ugly.
The tagline to the new film based on that experiment says it all: “They were given two weeks. It lasted six days.”
The movie “The Stanford Prison Experiment” tensely and relentlessly shows how easily these affluent, intelligent college students devolved into victims and victimizers.
Billy Crudup plays Zimbardo as an ambitious, results-driven psychologist who finds himself quickly in over his head and nearly as much a part of the experiment as his subjects.
The rest of the cast is packed with Hollywood up-and-comers (it wouldn’t surprise me at all if in 10 years this movie is viewed as this generation’s “The Outsiders”).
Standouts include Ezra Miller as rebellious prisoner Daniel Culp and Michael Angarano as Christopher Archer, one of the more sadistic guards who knowingly channels Strother Martin from “Cool Hand Luke.”
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a movie that gives you quite a bit to chew on. From the ills of the criminal justice system to academic ethics to basic human nature; you can see why this study is still talked about in universities all over the world. It says a lot about who we are as people and very little of it is good.
Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (working from a sharp screenplay by Tim Talbott) makes this a very claustrophobic and harrowing film. We’ve seen plenty of prison movies, but the stakes here somehow feel higher.
Freed by the fact this insane story actually took place, the filmmakers never have to get preachy or take much of a stand one way or another. It just lets our own consciences provide the shock and horror.
The fallout from this experiment is still felt today, especially in the field of psychology where this and a few other “questionable” experiments of the era led to much stricter safeguards when it comes to human experimentation.
The greatest power of a movie like this is it lets you imagine yourself on both sides of the situation, assuring yourself you would have acted differently than the young men in this experiment while secretly worrying you wouldn’t.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is rated R for language, including abusive behavior and some sexual references.