Greatness Escapes "The Stanford Prison Experiment"

Anyone who’s ever taken a college level psychology or sociology course has likely had a run-in with Philip Zombardo’s notorious Stanford prison experiment. His August 1971 lockup simulation – held in the basement of the Stanford psychology building – has become scholastic shorthand for the effects of imprisonment and the evils that seemingly normal people are capable of. What was conceived as an innocuous exercise in prisoner-guard relations involving 24 students went very bad, very quickly, etching itself a place in history books.

As a documentation of the experiment, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film version is a runaway success, bringing it to life in a way that does justice to both the participants and the original tapes (many of which are available online). As scripted by Tim Talbott, the picture is surprisingly matter-of-fact, putting the experiment itself front and center and moving its characters around like board game pieces.

But as entertainment it’s a near miss, falling prey to its inherently one-dimensional characters and unfocused plotting.

Billy Crudup (“Almost Famous”) stars as Dr. Zombardo, making the best of a pretty unrewarding role. Try as the screenplay might, Zombardo is not the main attraction here. The performance is largely one of observation, leaving Crudup to fashion an arc from a void of dialogue. The character’s romance with a fellow professor and former student, Dr. Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby, “Dredd”), is all but perfunctory, seemingly true to life but a strange fit all the same, mostly serving the pic’s resolution – and little else.

The movie’s centerpiece is naturally the inner workings of the experiment, which comprises at least two-thirds of the running time. With 24 students randomly split into two factions, the simulation affords some wildly talented young actors a nice showcase.

Foremost is Ezra Miller (“The Perks Of Being A Wallflower”) as prisoner 8612, doing much of the early heavy lifting as the resident wild card. His nervous energy is arguably the catalyst that drives guards and prisoners both to retreat further into their newly assigned personas, and it’s a lynchpin performance that could have broken the film. But Miller juggles irreverence and anxiousness so well that when 8612 is jettisoned from the experiment, the movie loses steam.

The standout among the guards – uniformed and assuming permission to be pricks – is Michael Angarano (“Sky High”), whose regular-guy-turned-sadistic-sheriff plays like a method actor gone mad, so enveloped in his “John Wayne” persona that he becomes ever further removed from reality than his inmates. With the guards having the luxury of shifts, Angarano is shorted on screen time, but he makes the most of his. He anchors the film’s best scene – its last – an interview that in context feels like an add-on, but actually hints at a side of the story that should’ve been explored further.

The aforementioned one-dimensionality of the prisoners and guards ultimately hurts the film, making the few stray interview scenes all the more vital. Seeing Angarano and Miller trade barbs, their characters finally out of character, is the most human moment in the film. And then it ends.

If the filmmakers had provided more than a fleeting glimpse of the students outside of the experiment, it likely would have served as the emotional anchor the film is missing. As it stands, the movie a reasonably compelling documentation of the events that fails to add anything meaningful to the conversation – a rare case where significant artistic liberties might’ve been a boon.

But the talented cast and fascinating real life story are enough of a foundation to make it worth the 2-hour sentence.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: July 17, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: IFC Films
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Screenwriter: Tim Talbott
Starring: Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Billy Crudup, Olivia Thirlby, Johnny Simmons, Tye Sheridan, Thomas Mann, Keir Gilchrist, Moises Arias
MPAA Rating: R (for language including abusive behavior and some sexual references)