“Good Apples in a bad barrel”~Zimbardo
Billy Crudup’s voice declaring Mastercard’s ability to improve your life as “priceless”,does not prepare you for his role as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the author of “The Lucifer Effect”. Nor does Crudup’s acclaimed title role on Broadway in “The Elephant Man” pave the way for his portrayal of a prideful academic whose “mock” prison perpetuates the devil in man.
Under the direction of Kyle Patrick Alvarez,Crudup is able to channel the renown psychologist as he loses himself in his quest for significant publishable data. Fingering his goatee and watching his volunteer subjects,Zimbardo is not likable in this film. He is not the winner of The Vaclav Havel Foundation Prize or the challenger of the American Correctional System. He is the perpetrator of an experiment that would be against the law today. This is a docudrama of his redemption and of the stoppage of his clinical experiment after only six days.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” opens with the pleasing sounds of the typewriter. A Want Ad is being written and duplicated in 101 copies. Fifteen dollars a day will be paid to emotionally-stable college males,who participate in a psychological study. The interviews begin. Guard or prisoner roles are queried;role selections are made by a coin toss; head shots are taken. Formal arrests are made. Prisoners are blindfolded. Sunglasses and uniforms are given to the guards,dresses of numbered sackcloth to the prisoners. Day one begins with ad-libbed orders from the guards: “hands on the wall”, “feet wider”,”strip”, “shut up”, “clothes to the right”. Billy clubs are out and lice spray is sprayed. “Mr. Correctional Officer” is how warden and guards are required to be addressed. One guard who uses an accent like the Southern official in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) later reminds me more of the movie “Deliverance” as he has the men pretend to sodomize each other with the image of camels humping.
Line-ups are excruciating with role-call intimidations,sleep interruptions,bogus exercise punishments and finally violence. Revolt is attempted,as are escapes. The cinematographer’s use of slow motion is very effective in capturing the robot-like circumstances of the rule bound group. Letters are written to perspective visitors,visitors commune,groups are divided and cell mates change. A priest is called on to counsel in Day Four. He is not trusted by Zimbardo,who feels he may call a lawyer and halt the experiment, thus nullifying any cogent results.Yet, the priest tells our psychologist that he is doing a good thing:”Boys of privilege should know what prison is like.”
A colleague of Dr.Zimbardo questions his research and the rather “frightful site” of the mock prison. He asks if an independent variable or simulation is being used to validate his research. Zimbardo spews invective at this challenge.
Day Five finds two prisoners released after a breakdown and a parole hearing. One consultant is a black man who served time in Rikers. He was selected to “legitimize the project”.He treats the prospective parolee with indifference and realizes that they all have become part of this demonstration.”I enjoyed it ( the power). You can’t imagine how that makes me feel.”
The mastermind of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment redeems himself with the aid of his fiancée, a former student and psychologist at Berkley. He becomes a distinguished PBS Series teacher/host in “Discovering Psychology” and holds teaching positions at Yale,Columbia, NYU,and Stanford. His understanding of sadistic abuse and the ease of abandoning morality under certain conditions led to his role in the Abu Ghraib investigation in Iraq. Zimbardo’s book “Psychology and Life” is in its nineteenth edition. He has evolved from academic egotist to a champion of social bravery. The film never tells us this,but we see his frightened eyes, the tears, and the head-holding pain of awareness,and his stepping up to halt evil when he sees it.This is not a fun film, but an instructive one. How do good people become evil ? How is the evil within each of us manifested ? Do we need more martyrs to a cause? This is a cerebral film about the baseness of humanity. Submissiveness and power are central to the theme.