In retrospect, the excesses of Abu Ghraib were all too accurately predicted by the now infamous behavioral experiment conducted in 1971 by Stanford professor, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup). The dramatization as THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT wisely takes the clinical approach, employing the detachment of the scientific method in recreating the events that are as disturbing now as they were over 40 years ago, not for where the experiment went so very wrong, but for what it revealed so clearly and, worse, so irrefutably about human nature.
The plan was to study the effect of prison conditions by using student volunteers who, for the then princely sum of $15 a day, would spend two weeks as either guards or prisoners in a basement, isolated from the rest of the world, and with no sense of the time that was passing. The roles were assigned at random, using a flip of the coin, a metaphor that will pop up throughout the film. The point is made that these are typical young men, smart enough to have made it into and elite university, and psychologically sound enough to have stayed there for a few years. They are also the product of their time: iconoclastic, anti-establishment, and more than willing to break the law when it comes to drug use. What happened next was a horror story that no one could have anticipated, and, most chillingly, from which none of the subjects nor scientists were immune as it proceeded.
The experiment was designed to systematically dehumanize the prisoners, strip them of their dignity as well as their individuality, but also, and this is perhaps the key, to dehumanize the guards, as well. Both are tricked out in uniforms (dresses and ankle chains for the prisoners, while the guards have khakis, mirrored sunglasses and nightsticks), and all are deprived of proper names (numbers for the prisoners, titles for the guards). The observers were at a remove, monitoring the events via hidden cameras that spied, but did not intrude. The simulation proved all too perfect. With such powerful cues in place, there was an almost instinctive falling into assigned roles. With no interference from those observers, aside from astonishment, the guards became increasingly, and gleefully, abusive, while the prisoners showed an unexpected willingness to follow orders, no matter how demeaning. Resentments festered, contempt grew, and in an astonishingly short amount of time, chaos broke out and all that is darkest in in each of us was set free.
Where the experiment ultimately dehumanized everyone, the film does just the opposite. We quickly forget the prisoners’ given names, but their torment is a visceral experience because of their suffering, and superb performances from the ensemble cast as their characters react in different, but equally intense ways to the pressure. When 8612 (Ezra Miller), the eventual rebel, is first processed, he treats it like a joke. When the guards, led by Michael Angarano do not, the stunned look in his eyes as he is forced to strip, submit to delousing, and degrading prison attire, is revelatory. What had been playacting becomes something else, something he all can’t process, and never will. The panic, the helplessness of being unable to process what is happening is as real for us as it is for the character. And it’s a panic that grows exponentially as the guards, forbidden to administer physical punishment for infractions, real or imaginary, used psychological tortures of increasing creativity and sadism to crush their charges.
The clinical approach is coolly effective, with long close-ups of people’s faces, prisoners and guards alike, as the humanity slowly drains from them. The depth-of-field is shallow, and subject of sudden shifts, while the passing of time becomes as much a mystery for us as for the people in the experiment. When the captions announce how much time has passed, it makes your breath catch in your throat.
Even as the film re-humanizes the prisoners for us, it coolly observes the instinct to dominate as it manifests in the guards and the scientists as all restraints are removed. Whenviolence breaks out, breaking all agree-upon protocols for the experiment, Zimbardo does not shut it down. His excitement isn’t that things are going wrong, but that what he is seeing is so fascinating, far too fascinating to halt. His team, goes along despite disagreeing. Strenuously. He doesn’t even attempt to reign in the guards, whose excesses are driving the prisoners over the edge of sanity. The question of motives is raised, and answered, but with a commentary on our ability to delude ourselves that is as much a cautionary tale, perhaps moreso, than the actual abuse depicted, this willingness to go along to get along. It’s a point beautifully focused by Jesse Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis), the ex-con brought in as a consultant, who becomes the voice of reason as the only one without an advanced degree, but the one observer with more insight into what is happening than all the PhDs in the room.
It is that reflexive acceptance of assigned roles that is most disconcerting. Told with such, you will pardon the term, authority, our fundamental reluctance to question authority, and, as the most vicious guard reflects after the experiment is over, our equal delight in seeing how much we can get away with when we are not challenged at all, this is where THE STANFORD EXPERIMENT succeeds not just in which it so sharply recreates a darkly fascinating event as a psychological thriller, but also in the way it makes us question how much or how little this acceptance of society’s expectations of us, the roles we ourselves are assigned, might apply to us in the course of a day, a year, or a lifetime.
At the end of the film, we are assured that no one involved suffered any long-term psychological damage. But learning precisely how fragile a construct society and it rules are when the framework is removed, is something that is too monstrous to un-know.