Stanford Prison Experiment is based off a simulation of the same title, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971, in which male students recreated the conditions of a prison in the basement of an office building. I use the word simulation because, despite the renowned psychologist’s reluctance to admit such, the ‘experiment’ lacks an independent variable.
Twenty four college boys are randomly assigned to the roles of either guards or prisoners based on nothing more than a dozen coin-flips, though the guards are led to believe it was due to the leadership abilities they displayed in their individual interviews.
What was expected to be an uneventful two-week study on the effects of institutions and dehumanizing practices instead becomes one of the most infamous cases of sadism and psychological torture ever documented within a professional study.
The participants are introduced in a montage of private screenings. Some are anxious, others good-humored, most are honest about why they agreed to participate: the pay. The characters appear, initially at least, as average college students because they are average college students. Yet through their extreme role-fulfillment, the guards adopt such cruel practices as sleep deprivation, selective isolation and public humiliation.
The most prominent of these characters, and perhaps the film’s acting antagonist, is Christopher Archer. Archer’s character is even more menacing for the accuracy with which he is portrayed (due in no small part to his gifted actor Michael Angarano, who I’d previously associated with films of the family-friendly, critically-panned variety.)
When asked why he’d prefer the role of a prisoner, he responds, “Nobody likes guards.” This is a statement he aims to make true when he ends up randomly assigned to be a guard and finds a dozen pseudo-prisoners subject to his command. Donning an exaggerated southern accent and fueled by motivations still unclear to himself, he certainly makes for one of cinema’s more noteworthy villains.
In contrast to Archer is the emotionally vulnerable and highly unpredictable Daniel Culp, or Prisoner 8612. While Archer plays the part of a fascist, Culp emerges to challenge him as a would-be revolutionary, plotting escapes and inspiring insurrection amongst his oppressed peers. The idea that we associate either student with these extreme archetypes lends itself well to the significance of the simulation, and the film’s powerful characters.
Particularly interesting on the topic of characters is the twisted fascination and manipulative practices of Philip Zimbardo himself, a figure whose exposure to the public is usually very sanitized.
Stanford Prison Experiment’s most impressive feat is its unrelenting devotion to truth and its effort to convey with complete accuracy the events that transpired. In a few cinematic ways, it suffers for this. While the tension could be heightened by trapping the camera within the prison, so that we’re often just as clueless as the prisoners, we’re instead constantly exposed to the discussions of the psychologists.
Just when it seems the film has found a worthy protagonist, they disappear. Some characters can seem inconsistent, but this is due to the reality of their being human. Finally, some audiences might find the ending anticlimactic.
It’s a shame most viewers will begin the film with some preexisting notion of what’s to occur. This is not the moviemakers’ fault, as the nature of the film’s marketing and the infamy of the study it documents makes such issues unavoidable. Still, the shocking events would be greatly amplified if we were caught just as unaware as the psychologists themselves. I would recommend Stanford Prison Experiment to anyone interested in the topic, and maybe especially to those unfamiliar with the results of the test.