The Stanford Prison Experiment  (2015)

I've been fascinated with the Stanford Prison Experiment since the first time I heard about it. For a quick summation, in 1971 a psychology professor at Stanford University took 18 students and split them into two groups, 9 prisoners and 9 guards. He built a replica jail in the basement of one of the academic buildings during summer break, and let the students act out in order to observe the effects of prison life. What was meant to be a two-week study was terminated after six days due to brutal conditions forced upon the prisoners by the guards.

I've read and re-read the true accounts of the Experiment many times. Every time, I'm shaken at how quickly the situation devolved into madness. Half of me is shocked that the 'guards' would turn so sadistic, but the other half of me always thinks "well, what did you expect when one group is given total authority over another?"  I have a pessimistic view of humanity in general. It might be a "me problem", but I just feel like a majority of people would take advantage of a situation if they were presented with one. When these students were told they would be guards, told they would be the absolute authority, told to dehumanize the prisoners, it should have been no surprise that they took it to an extreme.

The movie was a pretty good depiction of what went on. Obviously it fell short of an actual documentary, but I've seen some of the study footage and the similarities are definitely there. When watching any movie "based on a true story" you expect embellishment and dramatic license, but when you're basing a movie on a scientific study, you expect a bit more realism. The behind-the-scenes parts that were shown weren't part of the experiment, so they have to be taken as hear-say and memory, but even if they were mostly fabricated they did a nice job of tying the prison scenes together. It's close enough to a documentary that I kept rooting for a prisoner riot, hoping to see one of the guards take a kick to the gut.

Billy Crudup is great at playing a guy who seems nice but also has a smug punchable face. He made a nice turn from the "I'm smart, you just don't understand what I'm trying to do here" to a somewhat sinister authority, to the realization that he had lost all control and needed to shut things down. The rest of the cast is mostly unknowns, along with a few recognizable faces. The anonymity of the cast is a solid choice, as it helps to keep things feeling more real. Using lesser-known actors leant itself to being able to identify with the characters.

The events of the Experiment were so shocking, you can almost forget it really happened and just fall into the narrative of a fictional movie. Things go so crazy you almost feel it had to come from the mind of a screenwriter. It's an intense look into human psychology, the idea that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

 

 

On the [Celluloid Hero] scale, "The Stanford Prison Experiment" gets an 8 out of 10.