The Stanford Prison Experiment is a landmark psychology experiment conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in 1971 with the intent of studying the conflict between prisoners and guards in the prison system.
For the experiment, participants were divided into prison guards and prisoners. The guards were instructed to maintain order in the prison in any manner necessary, but were not allowed to physically harm any of the prisoners, who themselves were depersonalized and made to feel a sense of no control. It was to last two weeks, but ended after six days as the participants took on their adopted roles too well.
This study, familiar to any student of psychology, was adapted into a film written by Tim Talbott and directed Kyle Patrick Alvarez using transcripts from the actual study with some assistance from Dr. Zimbardo himself.
Impressively, it sticks true to the details. Even after questioning the possibility that some aspects could have been embellished for the benefit of the big-screen, some refreshing of the study after-the-fact indicated nothing was exaggerated. Knowing this further exemplifies the effectiveness of the study in displaying the potential of human action.
And such effectiveness plays well into Alvarez’s hands, seemingly making his job easy. But it isn’t easy to take a psychology experiment and turn it into a film for consumption by general audiences. There needs to be a narrative, and what we see is as much about Dr. Zimbardo himself as the experiment itself.
Alvarez’s perspective doesn’t paint Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) as the hero. Often he comes off as the antagonist – portrayed as a god-like figure who controls the entire prison. This is where it is important to remember that every participant has the freedom-to-withdraw at any point. Dr. Zimbardo is gathering information and he can only get it by letting the participants continue on in their roles, no matter how gruesome they get. It’s easy to lose sight of the purpose of showing human behaviour by pinning it all on Zimbardo. Hindsight is 20/20.
This points to the one recurrent issue of the film: the lack of emphasis for viewers on ensuring that full and distinct awareness was made that participants could withdraw from the study at any point. Such a detail is emphasized in any study conducted today, no matter how minor or harmless, and while we’re talking 1971 here, it was and is still a key component to understanding the experiment.
So when we see keys and locked doors, it’s easy to forget this very important detail. Additionally, the language is particularly important in this respect. Prior to the study, Zimbardo tells each participant that once the experiment begins, it will no longer be referred to as an experiment. From then onward, he and his team of researchers become actors in their own set and this impacts how the participants see themselves within the experiment.
While Alvarez is the winner of this film as director, Crudup’s take of Zimbardo is exceptional. He’s determined, has a sensitive side, but is still intimidating when dealing with his assistants and the participants. Of the participants, Michael Angarano as the alpha-guard, dubbed “John Wayne” by the researchers, capitalizes on his role of someone who relishes the authority given to him by an actual authority figure. Ezra Miller once again shows why he’s one of today’s actors to watch, taking on a new role and owning it – a rebellious type who is the first to break once his refusal to accept authority is itself refused by the prison guards.
The Stanford Prison Experiment serves as a great piece of cinema but is also useful as an informative film that speaks of human potential’s negative side. There was an opportunity to make this into something more than the recreation of an experiment for the big screen and while that isn’t fully realized, there’s still the takeaway that these are regular people with no prior craving for power (since they all preferred to be a prisoner, their roles were ultimately randomly selected) who were placed in positions of authority and submission and made choices on how to act on them. It could happen to anyone.