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"The Stanford Prison Experiment" is a dramatic true story and a startling look at human nature.
"Would you rather be a prison guard or a prisoner?" That question was put to young college men who answered a newspaper ad in "The Stanford Prison Experiment" (R, 2:02). The movie is based on a real-life psychology department study conducted at California's Stanford University in August 1971. After being screened using a questionnaire and an interview, 24 students were chosen as paid participants in the 14-day experiment (each making $15 per day). In spite of the above question being asked of all applicants, participants were assigned as either guards or prisoners by coin flips. Faculty offices in the basement of the university's psychology building were transformed into a mock prison wing. Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the psychology professor who led a team of graduate students and advisors in conducting the experiment, wanted to test the theory that conflicts between guards and inmates are caused by the men's individual personality traits. A documentary about the experiment was released in 1992 and a German film loosely based on the experiment came out in 2001, followed by an American remake in 2010, but this is the first feature film which attempts to dramatize the actual events that took place.
As we see Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) going through his selection process, we meet his team (James Wolk, Keir Gilchrist and Gaius Charles) and the student participants (including "prisoners" Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan and Thomas Mann, along with Michael Angarano as a "guard" who based his authoritative persona on a sadistic captain in the movie "Cool Hand Luke"). The guards are briefed and given generic uniforms. The prisoners are "arrested" by actual local police officers and sent to the "prison" to "await trial". The guards process the prisoners, give them uniforms (crude smocks and stocking caps) and taught to only identify themselves by their prisoner number and to address all guards as "Mr. Correctional Officer". The guards initially perform their duties tentatively while there's a lot of eye-rolling by the prisoners. Then something happens.
Both the guards and the prisoners quickly adapt to their roles to a surprising degree and even internalize them. The guards become increasingly menacing and sadistic. The prisoners' actions vary, but all are in character as some comply while others resist the guards' authority and talk of escape and some are even pushed to their psychological limits. Zimbardo and his team watch and listen to all the goings-on via closed-circuit camera and hidden microphones. Even when the guards violate the rules they've been given and the experiment seems close to getting out of hand, Zimbardo repeatedly forbids his team from intervening. A former San Quentin inmate (Nelson Ellis) joins the team as an adviser and gets involved more than he's comfortable with. An actual priest (Albert Malafronte) speaks with each of the prisoners and the team even holds a mock parole board. When Zimbardo's girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) stops by and observes parts of the experiment, she criticizes Zimbardo's methods and expresses concern for the well-being of the prisoners. The professor insists that his experiment could bring out positive change in prisons everywhere and wants to continue, convinced that he can keep things under control.
"The Stanford Prison Experiment" is a compelling dramatization that really sneaks up on you. Just when you're tempted to write off what you're seeing as a ridiculous exercise, you start to see what the professor sees – the remarkable transformation in the student participants from role-players to young men living and, in the case of the guards, actually relishing their roles. We also see what Zimbardo can't see – that he and his team are becoming part of the experiment themselves. The cast includes few, if any recognizable actors, but there is no weak link in this chain of performances and Crudup is particularly outstanding. Tim Talbot's script and the film's look realistically evoke the spirit of the early 70s, while the score and the cinematography are both creative and effective at drawing us into the film's narrative. Little-known director Kyle Patrick Alvarez does a great job of pulling these elements together.
Dr. Zimbardo's experiment made him an in-demand expert on the psychology of authority and on inmate-prison guard relations. He testified before Congress after major prison riots at San Quentin and Attica shortly after his experiment took place. After he noticed striking similarities between the results of his experiment and the abuse of prisoners at the hands of American soldiers in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, Zimbardo wrote a book discussing that connection. He has also lectured on his findings to audiences all over the world. None of this should be surprising to anyone who sees "The Stanford Prison Experiment". It's a dramatic depiction of a landmark psychology experiment and a startling window into human nature. It also happens to be a fascinating and entertaining film. "A-"
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