On Aug. 14, 1971, twenty-four college students reported to a fake jail set up in the basement of Stanford University’s Jordan Hall. Half were randomly selected to act as prisoners, the other half to play guards. The experiment was carried out under the auspices of professor Philip Zimbardo in order to study the psychological effects of power relationships in prison systems — whether putting someone in a position of authority by itself led to abuses of power.
The experiment was meant to run for two weeks but was terminated after six days of increasingly violent behavior by the guards and growing trauma among the prisoners. The dramatized version opening today is disturbing, extremely well acted, and a pretty impressive bait-and-switch. It makes a case for the importance and continuing relevance of the results when the real legacy of the Stanford Prison Experiment lies in demonstrating how not to conduct such tests. Guess which one makes a better movie, though.
Billy Crudup plays Zimbardo with a natty Mephistophelian beard and the sort of rakish egotism that charms grad students, if not one’s academic peers. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, from a script by Tim Talbott that apparently sticks closely to the 1971 videotapes, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” begins with a montage of the screening interviews held by Zimbardo and three graduate students. We’re in the early ’70s, which is to say the dog-end of the ’60s, and a motley assemblage of fine young actors is wheeled before us under cover of heavy hair and hideous fashion choices.
Once the coins are flipped and the subjects separated into their assigned roles, the guards are given uniforms and mirrored shades, while the prisoners don nylon stocking caps and white nightshirts with identifying numbers. Despite this, we sort them out pretty quickly: Daniel/8612 (Ezra Miller), the arrogant rebel who’s surprisingly quick to break; Jeff/1037 (Johnny Simmons, who finds toeing the line does him no good; Peter/819 (Tye Sheridan), thoughtful and psychologically frail; and so forth. One of the most interesting figures is Tom/2093 (Chris Sheffield), a quietly upright student so poor he lives in his car and who in one late scene mounts a saintly campaign of passive resistance.
Two figures stand out among the guards. Karl (Nicholas Braun) is a classic example of the insecure bully, his cruelty mounting along with his panic. And Chris (Michael Angarano) — well, Chris is the whole show because he understands he’s acting in one. Sly as a fox and quick on his feet, he adopts the Southern drawl and swagger of Strother Martin’s prison-farm sadist in the Paul Newman film “Cool Hand Luke.” The other guards dub him “John Wayne” and fall in line behind him.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is intentionally hard to watch. The guards break the rule forbidding physical violence on Day 1, and the mind games and grueling, nonsensical exercises they force on their prisoners under the pretext of “doing their job” leads a viewer to connect the dots in ways that do our species no favors. You’re thinking of Abu Ghraib even before the scene in which the prisoners are forced to simulate having sex with each other. (The real Zimbardo made the connection, too; he later served as an expert witness for the defense of one of the accused.)
These scenes are undeniably powerful, as are the arguments — presumably scripted — taking place among the researchers in the control room. Nelsan Ellis has a starkly damning scene as an ex-con, Zimbardo’s “professional consultant,” who finds himself becoming all he has hated while play-acting as a parole board member. (Less effective is Olivia Thirlby in the role of the professor’s colleague, fiancee, and moral conscience; the details may be true but they still play like stock drama.)
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” does acknowledge that the professor and his team “went too far,” but it also implies that the results were worth it — the movie wants to have its social science and eat it too. In reality, Zimbardo’s study led to a major reappraisal of ethics when using human subjects for psychological research, to greater thought given to screening procedures, and increased transparency across the board. As research in and of itself, what happened at Stanford was both of its era and absurdly flawed, with uncontrolled variables popping up like Whack-a-Moles. The presence alone of a Chris — a subject consciously gaming the experiment to see what he can get away with — skews the results beyond any practical use.
It does make for a fascinating, if skin-crawling, two hours at the movies, and Angarano is a charismatic manipulator, both in and out of character. In fact, the actor’s the only one here who seems to realize what the Stanford Prison Experiment is really about — not science, but cautionary entertainment.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.