The Stanford Prison Experiment

Year: 2015
Production Co: Coup d'Etat Films
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Writer: Tim Talbott/Philip Zimbardo
Cast: Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Thomas Mann, Olivia Thirlby, Ki Hong Lee, Logan Miller, James Frecheville, Benedict Samuel

If you've seen the awesome 2010 indie drama Das Experiment (and not many people have, but if you haven't you should) you've seen this story done somewhat better, but if you really want to complete your film education about the notorious 1971 psychology experiment you can tick this off your list and consider it done.

If you don't know the tale, doctor of psychology Philip Zimbardo paid 24 students to simulate a prison environment during a semester break at Stanford in 1971. They boarded up one of the halls on a lower floor of the building, made cells out of the rooms, solitary confinement out of a broom cupboard and locked their prisoners in.

Even though Zimbardo and his staff conducted interviews and told the subjects the results would best identify them as either prisoners or guards, in truth they assigned them randomly. The point of the experiment was to see if people would fall into roles of supplicant and dominant if they lived with the trappings of confinement, obedience and the diminishment of individuality – all hallmarks of imprisonment.

To say it all went wrong is the understatement of 20th century academia. Zimbardo intended to run the study for two weeks but it lasted six days before they pulled the plug, and if they hadn't (according to most accounts as well as this film) someone would have gotten badly hurt. By barely the end of the first day the students pretending to be guards had turned nasty and abusive, exhibiting genuinely sadistic tendencies, the 'prisoners' starting to resist and revolt.

The movie charts the course of the experiment and its breakdown, doing so with genuinely fraught scenes of tension as the prisoners and guards seem to buy into their roles just as much as you would as a viewer watching a prison movie.

In the background, Zimbardo and his advisors and staff watch intently. Being a movie it probably invents a little drama around Zimbardo that might not have been as intense in real life, showing him becoming increasingly uncoupled from reality and turning into a bit of a despot, more interested in the results than the harm he's potentially doing.

But it's hard to argue with the facts – Zimbardo did get invovled, playing a kind of uber-warden and refusing let several of the participants leave the study (qualify for parole), and it wasn't until his colleague and girlfriend, played by Olivia Thirlby in the film, questioned the ethical design of the study that he shut it down.

Like Stanley Milgram's work with authority, which you can see in Experimenter, psychologists now think it was proof that we internalise roles of obedience and authority through the circumstances and environment despite our dispositions as individuals, and though it's not a documentary, watching this movie is a perfectly entertaining and effective way of seeing it in action.

There's also a lot of young faces that were recognisable at the time (Michael Angarano, Thomas Mann) and would become much more so in the near future (Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan).

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