Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 5; Sex 8/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
This is a fascinating drama about a supposedly scientific experiment that went badly awry. The Golden Rule quickly was expelled from the building on Day One of what has become known as The Stanford Prison Experiment. I would place director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film, based on Tim Talbott’s script from the book by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, director of the project, in the category of “Cautionary Films.” Be careful of who you place in authority over others, or even of assuming that authority yourself!
During August of 1971 Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) of Stanford University was commissioned by the US Navy to conduct a psychological study of how men respond to captivity and of its effects on both inmates and those placed over them in prison. Lured by what looked like easy money, twenty-four male students out of seventy-five applicants were chosen and randomly assigned as guards and prisoners in the make believe prison, located in the basement of the school’s psychology building.
One of the students is the short of stature Michael Angarano (Christopher Archer), who, while donning a guard’s uniform, talks about the guards in my favorite prison movie, Cool Hand Luke. As soon as he confronts the make believe prisoners, his authority goes to his head. Striding down the hall with his baton and sunglasses, he could easily have stepped into the Southern prison farm, taking on the role of “No Eyes,” had he been a few inches taller. He becomes so mean and abusive that the professors watching the students via a video setup dub him “John Wayne.”
Part of the guards’ program of intentional dehumanization is to strip each prisoner of his name, making him always respond with his assigned number. On the very first night Michael plays mind-games with the prisoners, making them learn each other’s numbers and reciting them back in various orders. Daniel Culp (Ezra Miller), or rather 8612, is the first to resist Michael’s (we’ll call him “John Wayne” after this) cruel orders, such as having them do multiple push-ups and jumping jacks when the prisoners do not respond as he wants them to. When 8612 refuses orders, John Wayne does more than wave his baton; he brings it down the captive’s head.
One of the monitors calls out to the others, not quite believing what he saw—it is just the first day, and the pretend guards have already abused their authority, while the pretend prisoners have so sunk into their roles that most of them accept the abuse with just a little protest. 8612 becomes so distraught that he eventually does leave the project. During the rest of that long first night and through the following days the abusive behavior of John Wayne becomes even worse. His fellow guards, regarding him as a role model, readily join in humiliating the prisoners when he is not on duty. The marvel is that the prisoners, although rebelling at times, once even barricading themselves in a “cell,” do not just walk out.
Almost as appalling as the deterioration of relations between the guards and inmates, is the way in which the assistant monitors acquiesce to Dr. Zimbardo’s refusal to intervene or suggest to the guards that there are rules for, and limits to, their authority. Zimbardo sits by and watches on his monitor, and when a colleague suggests things have gone too far, he replies, “Let’s see where this goes.” He is backed up by Jesse Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis), brought in because, having once been a prisoner in San Quentin, he can insure that they get the details of the prison situation right. He goes through an evolution, at first saying that the conditions about which the students are complaining are nothing compared what he faced in the real world. After a few days, he too becomes sickened by the abuse, as does Dr. Zimbardo’s girlfriend Dr. Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby), who comes onto the observation team after Day One. To me the strangest scene is the one in which a priest speaks with the prisoners—whether a real or a pretend one, I do not know, but he proves useless for the morale of the abused.
Each new day is designated on a title card as Day Two, Day Three, but matters become so bad, with some of the prisoners seeming close to a breakdown, that the experiment was cancelled after 6 days instead of the intended 14. One remarkable thing about the film is that the failures of Dr. Zimbardo are not whitewashed, even though he was a consultant for the director.
Although regarded now as a scientific failure, the experiment certainly demonstrated what can happen to group members given unchecked authority, as well as the human tendency to acquiesce to authority, even when it seems unreasonable. This bore out my own experiences from childhood and adolescence. When I attended a junior high school I was one of the privileged students chosen for the school Safety Patrol, our embossed badges and webbed white shoulder-waist belts supplied by AAA. Our job was simple, to prevent fellow students from crossing against the light and stop anyone from running. I noticed that one member of our Patrol enjoyed ordering kids around, stopping some who were just walking fast and sending them back a hundred paces or so, as well as holding his arms outstretched a bit longer than necessary when the light turned red. Later, while in high school at the grocery store where I worked nights as a stock clerk, the manager would place one of us to watch over the other clerks during the late night hours when he was gone. It was the shortest one of us, when put in charge, who enjoyed ordering others around. Some of us regarded him as “Little Napoleon.”
At the end of the film several of the actors, still in their roles, comment upon their actions. Daniel Culp, the first to quit the experiment, states that he is sure that Michael Angarano (John Wayne) was a nice guy. The latter, who had slipped into sadism so easily, says that he is not sure why he acted as he did (or words to that effect). Perhaps he is a good example of what the apostle Paul wrote about himself. This would be a very good film for a group to discuss as it relates to the experience of the members with authority and submission to it
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of Visual Parables.