The Stanford Prison Experiment – Film Review

Prison poster

You might have heard of it.  In August of 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment.  Funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the experiment was to determine what was behind the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners.  Students were assigned roles.  It was supposed to last two weeks.  It lasted six days.  Hell broke out.  The new drama from director Kyle Patrick Alvarez explains how and why.  Both the research and the film are called The Stanford Prison Experiment.

The film opens with a typewriter typing the ad intended for the local classifieds.  It reads: Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life.  $15 per day for 1-2 weeks beginning August 14.  In real life, seventy-five students applied.  Twenty-four were picked.

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During the opening moments of the film, students are asked a series of questions: Emotional problems?  Ever attempted suicide?  Do you drink or use illegal drugs?  Ever engaged in domestic violence?  “No,” answers one of the students, amused by the questions.  “I go to Stanford.”  Interestingly, when the students are asked what role they would prefer to play, either a guard or a prisoner, the response is the same; a prisoner.  “Why’s that?’ asks Professor Zimbardo (Billy Crudup).  “Nobody likes guards.”

The real situation had local police arresting the students at their homes and charged with whatever faux crimes their ‘characters’ were assigned.  This included the standard procedure of mug shots and fingerprinting at a real police station.  The film shows an example of one student being arrested while washing a car with his little brother.  The police cuff him then haul him away.  “It’s okay, it’s okay,” the student assures his concerned younger sibling.  Cut to the mock prison.

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The experiment was conducted in the basement of Jordan Hall, the university’s psychology building.  The hallway and a few empty classrooms were converted.   Students acting as guards took turns with their work shifts.  They had the luxury of leaving the building when their shift was over.  Students acting as prisoners remained.  With university researchers observing every move from hidden cameras, the idea was to explore the effects that prisons have on human behavior and how such an institution can affect and alter the human condition.  The ‘guards’ were under orders not to physically attack.  From the beginning it spiraled out of control.

At first, the faux prisoners joke about their situation.  “We’ve been framed!  Framed, I tell ya!”  But it’s not long before a different attitude surfaces.  Once in uniform with a baton in hand and shades to hide the eyes, principle guard of the first shift (Michael Angarano) embraces his correctional officer character to an alarming degree.  Basing both speech and manner on Strother Martin’s classic portrayal in Cool Hand Luke and calling every prisoner, “boy,” the ‘guard’ fully commits to his role, pushing prisoners around and bullying them, ordering them to strip naked then spraying them with disinfectant.  “Is it me,” whispers one of the prisoner students to another, “Or are the guys taking this a bit too seriously?”

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While casually watching events on a TV monitor, one of the researchers observes the very thing that wasn’t supposed to occur; a ‘guard’ angrily raises his nightstick during a confrontation and beats a ‘prisoner.’  The startled researcher leans into the TV monitor, unsure of what he has just seen.  “What just happened?” he asks.

What just happened is what continues to happen – ‘guards’ brutally push ‘prisoners’ around, violently forcing them into seclusion, or the hole, bullying them into submission and degrading them to a degree way beyond agreed requirements, all witnessed by the team of researchers, some of whom voice concern to Professor Zimbardo who simply sits back and states, “Let the guards figure it out; see where it goes.”

By subject matter alone, The Stanford Prison Experiment can’t help but fascinate.  Like the ‘prisoners,’ we rarely leave the claustrophobic confines of the basement, emerging only occasionally to remind us there’s still a sane world out there.  Ask any actor and they’ll tell you; after researching a role and learning the lines, once you don the costume, you become the character.  Watching events unfold as ‘guards’ take the authority awarded by simply donning the uniform ties your stomach in knots.  You can’t help it.  An inner anger arises throughout, especially when a student breaks character and demands to be released from the experiment’s agreement while Zimbardo, himself participating in role playing to a degree that should raise even more alarms, refuses and has the student marched back to the cells against his will.

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Tye Sheridan and Ezra Miller are extremely effective in their roles as ‘prisoners’ 819 and 8612.  They have names but we never know them; their identities are stripped, adding further realism to the illusion.  There’s also a nice, low key turn from Chris Sheffield as prisoner 2093 who displays a quiet but determined attempt to cling to his principles under extreme conditions and the pitbull tactics of the ‘guards.’ Plus, Angarano as the overzealous ‘guard’ is as efficient and as brutal in his role as his character is as a correctional office.

If you do your own research and investigate what Professor Zimbardo is doing now, you’ll discover an esteemed authority on psychology, a man who teaches, lectures and travels the world, discussing among many things the psychological results of his experiment that exceeded way beyond expectation.  The film is based on his book The Lucifer Effect.  Based on how Crudup portrays the real life character in the film, Zimbardo comes across as callous and insanely reckless, bordering on repellant, abandoning any sense of moral composure.  Paranoia kicks in after a priest visits the ‘prisoners.’  Zimbardo doesn’t trust the man, insisting that the ordained minister might get a lawyer after what was observed down in the basement.  As graduate student and associate to Zimbardo, Christine Maslach (Olivia Thirlby) angrily tells him, “Oh, my God, you’re way in this over your head.”  Based on how the film presents the professor, which, in turn, is based on Zimbardo’s own book, he may today be a respected collegiate expert but I wouldn’t care to be in the same room as him.  Not yet.  Not until I calm down.  That’s how deep the anger within is stirred.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is undeniably absorbing, but as film entertainment, that’s a tough call.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length: 122 Minutes   Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

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