Stanford Prison Experiment: A Sundance Retrospective

After the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

by Beau Wammack

Here’s a recounting of my trip to Sundance 2015.  It was fun.  I saw many movies.  This is my second movie review from that experience.

I’d like to suggest that the Sundance Film Festival is worth attending in any capacity, even if one were to do so alone.  The wide variety of movies available and the uncommon experience of watching them alongside the filmmakers is something that one should do if one has the opportunity.  That said, I’m very glad to have traveled to Park City with Into the Noise, an organization that brings together a small collection of people to watch movies together and then dialogue about them.  This made my trip to Sundance all the more rich and enduring, not least because I found myself attending movies with my cohort that I would otherwise have missed.  One such movie was The Stanford Prison Experiment, to which I bandwaggoned with half a dozen friends for a packed-house midnight showing.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is that notorious 1971 psychological study in which average people were paid to be put in a mock-jail, divided at random into guards and prisoners, and left to work it out for what was to be a 2 week endeavor.  This brief description sums up my knowledge of the experiment prior to seeing the film, so I was blissfully and tensely unaware of where the film was headed for its entire running time.  The only marquee name in the credits is Billy Crudup, who plays the good Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the man who schemes up the whole thing and the man who is, ostensibly anyway, in charge.  There are familiar faces in the lineup of guards and prisoners, with some standout performances from Ezra Miller (the third wheel from Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Michael Angarano (the younger-self kid from Almost Famous), but because none of them are big names it was a complete toss-up as to which would prove to be important to the story.  The lack of clear leads, and my Wikipedia-heading amount of knowledge about the actual experiment, made for a captivating film-going experience.

There is a brief portion of the film dedicated to stage-setting, in which we meet a few of the experiment’s participants (all of whom were college-age males), as well as the good doctor, the good doctor’s girlfriend, and the good doctor’s associates.  In a rather odd choice by the filmmakers, the goals behind Zimbardo’s experiment are not conveyed in much detail.  We’re basically introduced to him as having already secured funding, grad student acolytes, and a staunch dedication to the project.  We’re given just a touch by way of explanation as to what he hopes to accomplish and why he’s setting it up in particular ways, and then that background section is quickly behind us.  The participants are divided up and the experiment is on its way, with us, the audience, naively along for the ride.  That the good doctor has written extensively on the subject leads me to believe that the finer points of his mindset were available - and thus could have been illuminated - so it seems a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers to leave that veil mostly opaque.  It is conceivable that the course taken by the experiment is, almost immediately, so terrifically unexpected and unnerving that any hindsight as to what the examiners thought or hoped would come of it was irrevocably altered; which, without me explaining any of the details, tells you how messed up it rapidly becomes.  Suffice to say that a number of the guards begin lording it over the prisoners, abusing their power and glorying in their roles.  In contrast, a number of the prisoners begin absorbing deep, complex feelings of guilt and helplessness, while others descend into thoroughgoing meekness and fear, and still others turn to rebellion and rage.

            A sickening amount of rabid violence/oppression on one side and clinical interest/distance on the other occurs in the experiment’s first hours among the studied and studiers, respectively.  That I watched the movie while beating back exhaustion (as noted above, it was a midnight showing, not to mention my third film of the day) only added to the brilliant, enthralling pace of the film.  Either this movie’s editor is an absolute genius or the material was somehow handpicked and organized by God herself, because just when you think things cannot get any worse it becomes clear that not only can they get worse but in fact we’ve only been through one single day of the 2-week experiment.  The amount of craziness present in a single 24-hour period is so massive, and massively dejecting, that when the title card showed up on the screen announcing the beginning of day #2 there was an audible gasp from the entire auditorium, as much from collective expenditure of nervous this-can’t-be-happening strain as from the fact that it was rounding 1 o’clock in the morning.

            As noted above, the filmmakers make some odd storytelling choices, and the character of Zimbardo is the chief example.  Before the meat of the film is even set to table, we’re given the strong impression that Zimbardo is both arrogant and narcissistic.  A strong example of this is his interaction with his girlfriend; we witness him providing her with encouragement along the lines of, “You were such a great student of mine.”  We then repeatedly see him turn back the rising tide of sentiment from his fellow researchers that the experiment is going too far, taking too many turns for the worse, and exacting too much of a toll on its subjects.  There’s a revealing scene in which the good doctor explains to a concerned parental couple that their son is doing just fine.  Zimbardo weasels his desired outcome by questioning the son’s stamina and durability in front of the father, who plainly glorifies machismo and earnestly seeks it in his son.

What makes the overall depiction so strange is that it incontestably contrasts with the description of Zimbardo that we receive in the closing credits.  As I watched the movie - again, having no idea what was coming next - I simply took it for granted that A) Zimbardo lost his job as soon as the world caught wind of his experiment, B) Zimbardo was a patently despicable human, and C) the experiment itself went down in history mainly as a precedent for what not to do when doing experiments.  It comes as a great surprise then when the closing credits inform the viewer that not only did Zimbardo receive accolades for his work but in fact continued to head the psych department at Stanford for another 30 years, and today he continues to write and speak from the requisite pedestal.  Which begs the question, Why are the filmmakers at such pains to represent Zimbardo as a callous weasel?  Then again, it could be that the answer lies in the same issue raised earlier with regard to Zimbardo’s motives: that the experiment itself is so baffling, so disturbing, that one cannot, in some sense, live with it, and yet one also cannot, because of its myriad consequences, live without it.  And yet that does not preclude one (such as the filmmaker, as well as with myself) from judging Zimbardo, firmly and fairly, for his creation of the experiment, his attitude throughout, and, most especially, for his heartlessness and detachment, attributes which are time and again on display as his subservient fellow researchers voice their worries and balk at seeing the whole thing through.

            Zimbardo does give a pithy rationale for his hopes as to the consequences of the experiment, that it will hopefully shed light on the incarceration system.  That he does not, at least in the film, go into any sort of detail actually assists the viewer in branching out into a host of musings regarding the results.  Upon leaving the theater and cramming into a Park City transit bus at 2 AM I found myself in a fascinating discussion with my companions as to which direction each of us went in our processing.  One friend commented that the experiment’s methods themselves were the most thought-provoking.  Another friend remarked that the experiment made her think in new ways about incarceration in America.  In this regard, as a film that breaks open worthwhile subjects for further thought and debate The Stanford Prison Experiment is in a rarefied league.  Indeed, what does this film have to say about the prison-industrial complex, let alone the effect of those systems on entire generations of, say, African-American males, or undocumented immigrants, or guards?  One can only hope that smarter people than myself are off somewhere tackling those subjects in meaningful ways.

Prior to even skimming the topics raised on the bus, I found myself reflecting on my own heart of darkness.  The deep insight of the film as I saw it was that the actions, and even the personalities, of the guards and the prisoners were severely situational.  For me, the most remarkable part of the movie happens at the very end, during an interview between one of the guards and one of the prisoners.  The conversation, treated almost as an outtake, is one that clearly takes place after the experiment has concluded and most of the heated emotions on either side have dissipated.  The former prisoner asks the former guard why he acted the way he had, to which the guard replies that he was just trying to relish his role and be creative in it.  The guard then reverses the question, querying how the prisoner might have acted had the roles been the opposite.  To which the prisoner replies something to the effect of, “Obviously I can’t say how I would have acted…I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have been so brutal, so creative.”  And therein is the unsparing repercussion of the film: an inability to predict how one might act in such circumstances.  Certainly we’d like to think we would tend only toward benevolence; the experiment, however, thoroughly calls this into question.  But, even beyond that, beyond this prisoner/guard dichotomy, perhaps we are being forced to allow that our inability to predict our own behavior might extend to other situations as well.  A disturbing thought indeed.