The Stanley Milgram played by Peter Sarsgaard in Michael Almereyda's "Experimenter" has a fanciful connection to the real world, but a fairly convincing dose of survivor guilt. His parents, he tells us early on, left Europe barely in time to escape the death machine of Adolf Eichmann, whose trial plays out on Milgram's TV and inspires his most inspired achievement: the 1961 Yale experiments in blind obedience that showed people would inflict almost unlimited pain on other people, as long as someone was telling them to do it. When your life's work confirms the heinousness of human nature, it's tough to be upbeat.
Sarsgaard's Milgram has something of a dire view of his fellow humans -- and, by extension, himself. But Almereyda's film, with its blatant use of back projections, a random elephant and a wry, present-tense narration by Milgram (who treats the fourth wall like a shower curtain), remains rather buoyant. And consistently absorbing. And persistently thoughtful: What did Milgram's experiments, with their supposedly dubious ethics and depressing conclusions, say about the human race, and the postwar application of guilt and justice? Never mind the weakness of the average human in the face of authority. Well, My Lai was just around the corner.
Almereyda is interested in Milgram's life as a whole -- he delves into the scientist's "small-world" experiments and the "six degrees of separation" conclusion; his academic setbacks and backlashes -- but it's the pain experiments that dominate the film, just as they would dominate Milgram's career. The parade of test subjects he observes (they are played by, among others, John Leguizamo, Anthony Edwards, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin) all writhe and sweat and protest and moan, but they almost all keep throwing the switches that send the electricity to the "learner" on the other side of a wall (in reality, there was no voltage, no pain and no suffering, except by the "teachers"). Milgram's work remains morbidly fascinating and with good reason. But Almereyda's film, in equal measure, is both playful and poignant.