“Stanford Prison Experiment” movie review: Prisoner 819 did a bad thing

Phil Zimbardo is one kinky motherfucker. Anyone who has taken an a first survey course in psychology or sociology within the past two decades could probably tell you he’s freaky-deeky. Maybe this impression comes from watching him narrate survey-course videos on a variety of subjects in now-outmoded clothing.

Probably a perv.

In my case, when I lived in the Bay Area, I did hear a rumor once that he was involved in the San Francisco BDSM scene, and it seemed credible. It’s more likely that we think he’s a fellow perv because he once locked up a bunch of Stanford undergraduate students in a basement, whereupon he coached another group of students to enforce petty rules meant to dominate and control the first group. He called this an “experiment.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez, with writer Tim Talbot, has created an engaging, albeit flinch-inducing, movie about the six days Dr. Philip Zimbardo first realized role-playing rustled his jimmies. Zimbardo has spun that experience, called “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” into the basis of a long career as a prominent lecturer on social psychology. He also has been a valuable video-intermediated substitute teacher for those days when the social psychology professor has too many papers to grade for the introductory class. Along with Stanley Milgram’s teacher-learner study, Zimbardo’s prison experiment established two things about human character: everyone is capable of abusing another if told to do so by a person with adequate authority, and a good part of how people behave is the basis of what role or labels they are assigned.

Zimbardo recruited male Stanford students by enticing them with $15 a day– about $85 in 2015 terms– for what was planned as a two-week study of how authority works in correctional facilities. With his academic colleagues, he weeded out the people with obvious psychological problems. He chose at random half of the study participants to be guards, and half of the study participants to be prisoners. The prisoners were fake-arrested by cooperating real police, and brought to a fake-jail established in the basement of a Stanford building, whereupon the guards replaced each prisoner’s name with an ID number, and his clothes with a rough mock-prison uniform.

The guards were given a set of prison rules to enforce, and wide latitude in coming up with procedures on how to enforce those rules. After a short time of being uncertain about their new roles, the guards and the prisoners  came to embody them in frightening ways. Prisoners complied to the point of damaging other prisoners, or attempting to cause a prison riot. Guards enacted corporal punishments that included withholding food and medication, along with simulated anal rape. And Zimbardo, who set himself up as the fictional warden of the fictional jail, found himself so engrossed in his role that he lost the any dispassion that  might characterize an academic undertaking a study.

Ultimately, as anyone who has sat through an introductory course in the social sciences knows, it became impossible to tell the pretend-prison on Stanford campus apart from a real prison. Zimbardo was convinced by his colleagues to  end the study after only six days in order to keep the prisoners and guards from hurting each other further.

This is a drama, not a documentary. Nonetheless, the movie drives home the central theme of Zimbardo’s “experiment,” which is, roughly, that anyone can be socialized to conform to an evil system. Authority, role socialization, and depersonalization are central themes to both the movie and Zimbardo’s writing. To spice things up, however, the movie has a romance and a subplot about race relations.

The race subplot features a character, played by Nelsan Ellis, whom character Zimbardo has retained as a non-academic consultant on prison conditions. Jesse is a Black Power militant– this is 1971, after all– who spent many years of the previous decade in jail. Perhaps because of his political sympathies, Zimbardo feels compelled to be extremely solicitous of Jesse’s advice and approval. Jesse constantly demands Zimbardo’s fake jail use ever-harsher methods for the sake of verisimilitude. He shows some bitterness towards the ostensibly white and privileged Stanford students chosen to participate, explaining that they, like Zimbardo, are too soft and privileged to even understand such a thing as prison. When challenged by the other black character, an academic member of Zimbardo’s team, Jesse calls the other man out as an Uncle Tom. Finally, in a climactic scene towards the end of the film, Jesse expresses his distress at having acted just as cruelly towards the prisoners of Zimbardo’s jail as his overseers, whom he despised, treated him while he himself was in jail.

The most prominent female character, played by Olivia Thirlby, represents Dr. Zimbardo’s future wife Christina Maslach, whom we can all probably imagined he started to bang while she was still under his authority as his graduate student. The fact that she was the only woman academic shown represents a failure of imagination on the part of the writers. Thirby, however, does a superb job in her very credible portrayal. Like the other characters, Olivia struggles with Zimbardo’s use and abuse of power. Her struggle ends in her last appearance, during which she discovers enough of her own authority to tell her lover and mentor that his experiment has gone too far.

While I’m speaking about women, the movie does not pass the Bechdel test. Given that study participants were all male, and women were probably underrepresented on Stanford faculty in 1972, this may not be entirely surprising. But not only do the four female characters with speaking roles never speak about anything other than a man, they never speak to anyone other than a man. And Thirby’s Olivia is the only character who speaks more than three lines.

At 122 minutes, the film runs a little bit long.  Late in the film, there is one notable section that is both cringeworthy and too lengthy. If the film-makers intended this segment  to be a little unbearable to viewers, they succeeded. The camera narrows into extreme close-ups of prisoners and guards interacting in a way that effectively portrays the claustrophobia of being trapped in a basement and social science experiment where nothing is going right. If portraying beatings and abuse in this manner is made to make us flinch, it is effective. But it the effect continues beyond the amount of time in which it is captivating and into the time in which it is punishment.

There were  a few details that should have blended into the background, but distracted me. These were mostly anachronisms. I speculated as I watched that I have definitely become old enough to watch movies by filmmakers who do not remember the 1970s or perhaps even the 1980s. For example, the work opens with movable type being cast into a layout for a classified recruitment ad for study participants, but then immediately moves to  that same ad being reproduced using an offset press with a photolithographic plate instead of movable type. It continues on to have the researchers watch and record their jail using a color camera and small color monitor, which, in my opinion, would have been cost-prohibitive to an academic even at a prestigious institution at the time of the events portrayed. Indeed, the available footage of the actual experiment is in black and white.

And then there is smoke. Smokers are everywhere. All the students are smokers. They are smoking inside. I wondered if rampant smoking is now the standard way that writers will signal to audiences that a movie happens between 1940 and 1980. I suppose we can all thank Mad Men for that: thanks a lot, Don Draper. But it sure is funny that contemporary films of the 1970s that I recall do not use this indoor smoking device to signal their contemporaneousness.

Fuck you, Don.

Despite the modest threats to credibility that these anachronisms, the lack of women, and the smoking trope produce, this movie was worth watching. Like the best movies I’ve seen, the Stanford Prison Experiment movie left me wanting to know more. I left with a firm resolve to visit an academic library to sort out how this dramatization relates to what actually happened. And while it did not change my bias that he’s probably a perv, the Stanford Prison Experiment movie did make me want to find out more about Zimbardo’s day job as an academic by reading some of the many publications that bear his name.

Anyone who has ever come away from teaching social psychology with a newfound desire to join the local BDSM club should most certainly see this film. Those who have ever had to file an application with their institution’s Institutional Review Board that detailed how subjects would give informed consent and not beaten should see this film so as to be familiar with at least one piece of research upon which the necessity of filing such applications may be blamed. Anyone who even now believes that a person’s good or evil nature is innate, and not socialized, should be sentenced to a movie theater to watch this movie. And, of course, those who are unfamiliar with Dr. Zimbardo’s work, this film provides an accessible introduction to his oeuvre.

I say 9/10, would watch again.

[ Stanford Prison Experiment. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Written by Tim Talbott. Starring Billy Crudup. Rated R for language and lack of an institutional review board. 122 minutes. Was at the Belcourt Theater here last week, and at other swank arty cinemas elsewhere right now. Perhaps they’ll put it out on DVD someday. ]