The Ethics of Power in ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’
(Sundance 2015)


On August 14th, 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, professor of psychology at Stanford University, randomly divided twenty-four students into twelve “prisoners” and twelve “guards” by the flip of a coin. He then placed them in a closed-off, prison-ified version of the Stanford psychology building basement, set up cameras for him and his team to observe, and waited to see what would happen. After a relatively uneventful start, the participants quickly fell into their respective roles, and by day six of the proposed two-week experiment, the physical and emotional abuse by the guards onto the prisoners was so brutal that Zimbardo terminated the study early.

One friend of mine at Stanford claims she’s learned about this infamous Prison Experiment in no less than four classes. There’s a plaque commemorating it in the basement of Jordan Hall. Zimbardo, now a professor emeritus, has written numerous books and a documentary on the subject. Though Zimbardo has explored the ethical implications of the experiment, it’s easy to lose the more explosive details of the story, especially because they are impossible to summarize on a plaque and are usually reduced to a slide or two when taught about in an academic setting. Since there’s absolutely no chance the Stanford Prison Experiment could be replicated today–the American Psychology Association verified the experiment’s ethics under their existing guidelines in 1973, but promptly made revisions to those guidelines to prevent anything like it from happening again–it follows that the next best way to intimately and viscerally convey the ethical dilemma in all its complexity would be to dramatize it.

Enter Kyle Patrick Alvarez and Tim Talbott, respective director and writer of The Stanford Prison Experiment, which recently had its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The film has the approval of Zimbardo, who acted as a consultant on the project and appeared in Park City with cast and crew to promote it. It’s a chilling procedural recreation of the experiment that remains relatively unembellished by the filmmakers. However, despite Zimbardo’s involvement, the film proves to be sadly incomplete with regards to the bigger ethical questions the experiment raised.

Billy Crudup plays Zimbardo, who here is more of an antagonistic enigma than he ever is a three-dimensional character. He is never able to cogently explain to anyone what the experiment is really about, nor what compelled him to do it, always defaulting back to: “We’re doing good here.” Yet when a guard strikes a prisoner (something explicitly forbidden in the contract all participants signed) and a research assistant asks Zimbardo if they should intervene, Zimbardo refuses, his fascination with the experiment’s dramatic escalation overcoming his integrity as a researcher.

To be fair to the film, it’s worth restating that the experiment was conducted under ethical standards of a different era. The audience’s reaction to implicitly want to “help” every participant of the study is precisely the point–that we couldn’t know what we would do in the situation until we were in it. In real life, Zimbardo is the first to admit that he was morally in the wrong until he decided to cut the study short. But his characterization in this film doesn’t do him any favors–he comes off less as a driven and single-minded intellectual with a fatal flaw and more like he’s reckless and making it all up as he goes along.

However, the contradictions of Zimbardo’s character are always present in Crudup’s performance, who plays it with such slimy remove that we believe his repeated resolve that despite every concern, the straightforward abuse occurring on the other side of the wall from his viewing room is fascinating and important to the field of psychology. That doesn’t make it any easier to watch. The movie almost exclusively takes place in the sickeningly white hallway-turned-prison, filmed with sensationally precise claustrophobia and performed with the most pitch-perfect sense of dread by the primarily young cast. The film’s staging was equally impressive–Alvarez alternated between deathly still and chaotically moving camerawork in order to explore every inch of the space, gamely and boldly sending us into the depths of human depravity with disturbing, haunting clarity. Tableaus in close-up study the faces of the individuals involved–the prisoners, the guards, and the watchers – trapping them even further in their respective roles.

As the guards, including a sadistic ante-upper nicknamed “John Wayne” (a scarily on-point Michael Angarano), start abusing their power, prisoners begin having legitimate mental breakdowns that require their removal from the experiment. As the days roll by (after what felt like an eternity of screentime, the title card “Day Two” got an uneasy laugh from my audience), all Zimbardo and company do is sit back and watch, occasionally giving a word of advice to the guards on how to best handle the prisoners. Many discussions between the academic staff are of the collective failure of the guards to perform their basic duties. However, our modern ethical viewpoint and the almost cartoonish villainy of Zimbardo’s character give us another perspective: the institutional failure.

How did Stanford okay this experiment? How did anyone okay this experiment? What kind of sick monster is Zimbardo to come up with this experiment… and actually do it? How could this possibly be for any kind of good?

It is, of course, easy to ask these questions from our modern perspective. Zimbardo’s initial paperwork filed to Stanford’s Human Subjects Research Review Committee has been made public, and nothing about it suggests the degree of escalation that would follow. The problem isn’t that Zimbardo staged the experiment in the first place, as he followed all necessary steps at the time to do so, but that he let it continue, even when it inflated in brutality beyond its initial design. Zimbardo was just as deep in his role as his subjects were–the role of experimenter–and in that way, his descent into darkness is just as crucial. In the film, Zimbardo doesn’t come back to the light until his girlfriend psychologist (Olivia Thirlby) confronts him, and the subjects snap out of their roles with disarming nonchalance when Zimbardo finally intervenes.

But these ethically provocative ideas never get a proper thematic conclusion. After two hours of brutal, visceral, complex filmmaking, The Stanford Prison Experiment ends with a simplistic coda, that succinctly sums up what the experiment proves and why it’s important, exalts Zimbardo’s place as a legend of psychology–negating his terrifying descent of neglect–and recreates archival footage with the “participants,” showing they’re okay. They’re okay! Everyone’s okay! Don’t worry about it! Reverting to a historical perspective in place of resolution for many of the bigger questions implicitly raised is too easy for this movie. Whatever long-term “good” was derived from the experiment came from an esteemed academic letting young men torture each other for six days, and it’s important for us not to brush that collective human failure under the rug, even in the face of a scientific triumph.

But even if it does it with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, The Stanford Prison Experiment gets its point across through tight, claustrophobic, powerful filmmaking and superb acting. It has stuck with me for its visceral impact more than any film from the festival. I knew it had a hold over me when I was going through airport security on the way home from Sundance, and one TSA agent was being especially aggressive ushering people through the line. One thought went through my head, a thought which is probably what Zimbardo wants me to think:

“Man, I wouldn’t be that mean if I were in your position.”


Photos courtesy of Sundance

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *

Comment *