The Stanford Prison Experiment – Review

Before ethical committees got too involved, psychological experiments could include some pretty fucked up stuff. Causing physical and emotional pain to both humans and animals was often considered just part of the process. If you were to type ‘unethical psychology studies’ into Google or Bing (ha!) the top ten is pretty much the same wherever you look. Milgram will get a mention for comparing university students to Nazis. Harlow is usually somewhere in the top five because no-one likes to see upset baby monkeys. And you will necessarily find Dr. Zimbardo (which, incidentally, is an excellent name for a super villain) and his infamous prison experiment described as an ethical train wreck.

Zimbardo, despite his name, actually had good intentions. He wanted to show the psychological detriment institutionalisation has on inmates, thereby encouraging better treatment throughout the justice system. Simple really. Like taking a game of Cops and Robbers to its logical conclusion. To simulate a realistic prison Zimbardo and his team transformed a corridor and offices in Stanford University into communal area and cells respectively. A cupboard, lovingly nicknamed ‘The Hole’ served as a cosy space for solitary confinement. The subjects, twenty-four young male students looking to make a quick buck, were selected after a rigorous interview process to ensure they were all mentally, physically and ethically fit to participate. Their fates were then sealed with a coin flip (although they were not told that). Twelve were made prisoners, twelve made guards. Nine from each group participated, the other six were benched as alternates. And thus, the two week simulation began – fake arrests and all. But the best laid plans, all ‘But the best laid plans of mice and men/Gang aft a-gley. In Zimbardo’s own words:

Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because…our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”

That’s putting it lightly.

Simply named after the study itself, The Stanford Prison Experiment seems to hold true to the reality. Parts of the script are entirely lifted from footage filmed during the experiment, so the disturbing scenes you see take on a whole new level of creepy. Dr Zimbardo himself was on hand for the film, so authenticity was clearly the aim here. Director Alvarez deserves praise for his ability to reflect the pressure felt by participants. Close shots and restricted environments create a sense of claustrophobia, while the lengthy chapters punctuated by blank screens emblazoned with the words ‘Day One’ ‘Day Two’ etc makes even the audience question their perception of time (it should be noted that many of the inmates actually believed they had been in ‘prison’ for much longer than six days as they had no clocks, windows, or regular sleeping pattern to fixate on).

The acting is integral to making the whole thing believable. After all, it DID happen, so under or over playing roles would jeopardise the authenticity of the piece. That’s where true respect is commanded for this film. Michael Angarano plays a particularly dark participant, who took on a sadistic John Wayne-esque role as a guard. As he gets more involved in his role, so you start to believe he really is a villain here. By the end, it’s hard to imagine that behind the sunglasses is just a boy from Stanford. Likewise, watching Ezra Miller portray a full on meltdown after a failed attempt to escape, you genuinely worry for the man’s ongoing sanity.  The debrief and interviews at the end are as necessary to the viewer as they were to the participants at the time. Hearing ‘John Wayne’ justify his actions, however, is a bit of a mind fuck (again, the script here was taken from a genuine interview with the participant. It’s as real as it is messed up)

The writers, the director, and the actors all do an exemplary job at making this experiment more relatable. You will be left questioning how you would respond to such surreal circumstances, which is as uncomfortable as it sounds. For anyone interested in doing some real digging into the human psyche, for anyone who thought ‘well, if I was in charge, I’d do things differently’ – this is a must watch film.

Warning: You will probably end up doing some pretty extensive research on the real Stanford Prison Experiment after watching this. It’s a consuming task, which leads on to tangent after tangent until you eventually find yourself watching a baby monkey riding a pig at 3am. Just bear that in mind before you hit  ‘Search’.


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