I haven’t had much time to go out and watch movies recently so #Netflix has been my best friend of late, and my prime source of films to review. I’ve been intrigued by The Stanford Prison Experiment ever since I learned about all the controversy about the project and when Netflix finally made it available, I jumped at a chance to watch it.
Synopsis: In 1971, psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo led a team of researchers in conducting an experiment which involved 18 volunteer college students who were randomly selected to play the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison inside the university. The experiment, which was originally intended to run for two weeks sought to understand the power struggle between prisoners and prison officers, was shut down after only six days when the students quickly assimilated to their roles which resulted in power tripping, abuses and depression among the participants.
Is it possible to remain angry for the duration of an entire film? I discovered that it was after I wrestled with varying degrees of rage for the 2 hour and 2 minute run of the film. The problem was, I didn’t really know who I was angry at. Was it Zimbardo and the research team, who despite seeing the tendency of the subjects to abuse their roles, allowed them to go overboard and even goaded the guards to enforce stricter and more creative measures to keep the prisoners in line? Was it the guards who degraded and verbally abused the prisoners and treated them as less than human, having fun while they were doing it? Was it the prisoners for allowing the abuse to continue without speaking out and going against the system?
While I was angry at the injustices suffered by the subjects for the duration of the prematurely terminated experiment, I also understood how it could have been viewed as a success. The subjects fully assimilated to their roles so quickly that it gave a glimpse at how behaviors are influenced by the perception of power. However, I was not fully convinced that all of the subjects did not suffer any lasting trauma from the study from the many variables that the experiments failed to take into account.
First off, the researchers did not profile the subjects properly and only assigned the roles based on a coin flip. In real life, applicants for the position of correction officer are profiled intensively before they are assigned to guard hardened criminals in prison. Secondly, the conditions in which the subjects were incarcerated were also questionable. In a real prison, most of the inmates have committed actual crimes putting them in a different frame of mind than innocent teenagers who are being asked to feel remorse over a manufactured criminal history. I was gritting my teeth the whole time Prisoner 1037 was being interviewed for parole and he was being abused and reprimanded for “crimes” that he committed. The insults were directed at the character of the prisoner but the actual student was reeling from the abusive language.
Another red flag was that every time there were threats of legality raised, the researchers were very quick to silence the subjects and willingly released them provided they sign waivers that cleared the researchers of any liability. Their reaction, for me was a sign that they too understood that they were doing something wrong but they chose to ignore it because they were too absorbed by the potential of the study to stop at midpoint.
I was completely blown away by how convicingly Bill Crudup portrayed his role as the psychologist who, himself, got too involved in his experiment that he failed to see the magnitude of the damage it was doing to the subjects. I felt for all of the prisoners — most especially 8612 (Ezra Miller), 819 (Tye Sheridan) and 2093 (Chris Sheffield). The culture shock and the bullying broke those who were perceived to be the strongest and the rebels while it compelled the meekest to test his own convictions to stand up to the abuse.
In the movie, Zimbardo described “John Wayne” as remarkable and I agree that actor Michael Angarano made the character come to life because of his creativity and his dedication with his role. While the prisoners had ringleaders and followers, the prison officers were also the same with John Wayne paving the path for the rest to follow. In this sense, dominance and submission were on full display. There were also those who felt strong objection to what was happening but remained silent because of fear. What if they had spoken up? What if they acted on the abuse? The study would have turned out quite differently.
All in all, The Stanford Prison Experiment was a remarkable film because like the participants of the experiment, it immersed the audiences in the ordeal of the students even as mere spectators of a film inspired by actual events. It raised many questions about morality and ethics and made the audience reflect on their own capabilities and limits. Personally, I cannot pass judgment on anyone involved in the study because I do not know how much of the film was accurate but I must say that in order to have been part of it entails a truly strong stomach. Still, based on this film alone, I would surmise that no one came out of that experiment unscathed. Everyone was a victim, of others, of themselves — it was a torture on the conscience during and even years after the experiment. This much, I am sure of.